Due to the fact it's become an overcrowded genre in the past three or four years, I am no longer a fan of biopics. I understand wanting to have a great actor portray a brilliant and tortured soul; the problem is that, even though they were all brilliant, they were all f-cked up in the same way (troubled childhood, drugs, alcohol, infidelity). This leaves little room for surprises then, making the whole experience boring and stale. In the end, all you're able to pinpoint is which actor does the best impersonation of a whacked out entertainer.
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While Bob Fosse's All That Jazz does fall into some of the familiar biopic traps, it is a different beast than the others altogether. Aside from being a nakedly revealing peek into Fosse's exhausting life, we also are treated to a performance by Roy Scheider that is a piece of history. Forget how realistically Jamie Foxx played Ray Charles or Joaquin Phoenix played Johnny Cash; Scheider's work is more than just smoke and mirrors. Unlike other biopics where we feel like we're simply living in the moment, All That Jazz gives us the impression we could have always been there, witnessing the steady decline of an obsessed genius step by painstaking step.
Even if there is some heavy handed back patting here, there's no question that it takes a lot of guts to put yourself on the chopping block as openly as Fosse does. All That Jazz received comparisons when it came out to Fellini's 8 1/2, and why shouldn't it? Both pictures are about the artist, made by the artist, with the artist wearing effortless determination on their sleeves. Like Fellini, Fosse brings a hypnotic quality to the piece, staging many of his inner struggles set to nightmarish musical numbers. These moments, which are obviously the most personal to Fosse, are also where the movie falters. Each one pertains in some way to how he needs to improve his lifestyle, but instead of dragging this out into three complete songs, why not condense them into one? By the time the last one is through, the idea has reached overkill.
If overkill is a bad thing in that respect, it lends itself well in other ways. On numerous occasions throughout, Fosse shows us his morning ritual, which includes taking a shower, downing some pills, and filling his eyes with drops. The first few times, it's shown at rapid pace but as we reach the picture's center, he begins to slow it down a bit. And notice how as the speed of the routine slows, Fosse shoots his main character at low angles, subtly letting us know how far he's beginning to sink. It's fantastic technical filmmaking, with most of the credit belonging to editor Alan Heim, who won an Oscar for his work here. Equally as impressive is the movie's opening, a tryout session, which manages to be dialogue free for close to five minutes (!). It's a gusty sequence to have at the beginning of the picture, and yet it's cut in hopes the audience will become quickly acquainted with Fosse's world.
In the movie, Fosse changes his name to Joe Gideon, brought to life by Scheider as a man driven by his work and an unapologetic taste for woman. It's loosely based on the early stages of bringing "Chicago" to Broadway, from the casting to the rehearsals. Some of the liveliest moments involve the pressure Gideon puts on the dancers to turn his vision into a reality, especially when pertaining to Victoria (Deborah Geffner), a lousy dancer he was convinced could be shaped into something special for no other reason than the fact she had great legs (and was great in bed). Less interesting are the scenes of Gideon attempting to edit a stand up comedy movie he's directed.
The other women in his life watched this dedication with jealousy and remorse. Gideon's ex-wife (Leland Parker) and current girlfriend (Kate Jagger) seem to have a hard time dealing with his unfaithful behavior, and yet, due to his sheer willingness to throw himself into his work, they are unable to simply write him off. The picture's first hour is the most effective, since it shows Gideon at the top of his game, taking heavy risks by having the cast perform a routine sans clothes and a dose of sexuality that will quickly turn family audiences away from the show.
The second hour focuses on Gideon's failing health, beginning with an excellent scene where he has the cast read through the script even though he can't hear a word anyone is saying. The rest of the time he's in the hospital, undergoing surgery and then not recovering because he'd rather by partying. (SPOILER WARNING!) Fosse didn't pass away until eight years after All That Jazz was released, but that didn't stop him from having Gideon's post operation ignorance lead to his death. I think Fosse wanted the world to know this where he was headed, that his sheer willingness to continue filling his body with sources to help him function would catch up sooner or later. Aside from Scheider, I can't say I'm a huge fan of the closing scene, a musical number Gideon performs for every person who's had an impact on his life. It became the moment for me where boldness turned into smugness.
There's a lot of memorable stuff in All That Jazz, the most autobiographical being Gideon's conversations with an angel (Jessica Lange, in her second movie role) who critiques every flawed aspect of his existence. These scenes are haunting, since it sets up Gideon's death from the very beginning. It's as if he already knows the outcome of his actions, and sees it as inevitable. The driving force behind it all is Scheider, who gives one of the best screen performances of all time. Watching him is to understand the meaning of the word sacrifice, as he puts every ounce of his being into making Gideon as convincing as possible. There are no tricks or gimmicks to be found, just an actor who was able to make us believe, with every role, that he was someone else. Is there any doubt that Fosse didn't see his reflection every time he yelled "action"? Had he continued to direct movies, Scheider would have been the perfect muse.
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