Rob Marshall's 2009 musical Nine proved that taking a beloved film – in this case Federico Fellini's masterful 8½ – and reworking it for modern day audiences can be hard, especially when reconfiguring it into the musical genre. However, it was 30 years earlier in 1979 when iconic, legendary dance choreographer and film director Bob Fosse did it first; twisting Fellini's autobiographical account of a physically and mentally exhausted creator into a musical fantasy.
Fosse's foray into the world of film directing didn't produce many films – only five features, plus a 1972 TV special Liza with a Z – and yet his resume holds up stronger than many well-known directors with longer careers. His most famous, and arguably most mass-acclaimed, is Cabaret from 1972 for which he won the Academy Award for Best Director, but for me it's All That Jazz that stands tallest.
I first saw All That Jazz on DVD after purchasing it for $5 in a K-Mart bargain bin. Having never seen it before, but having enjoyed Cabaret, it was hard to pass up. It wasn't until 2005, though, when a screening at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne truly allowed it to grow into my favourite.
The film takes its first steps with a bravura ten minute casting call sequence that has rightfully become a regular in film schools. From there Fosse unfolds the captivating tale of an egotistical Broadway choreographer whose boozy, womanising lifestyle is quickly becoming his undoing and the dizzying menagerie of stage folk who live and breathe dance and music. It is based on Fosse's own experience as he attempted to complete his third feature, Lenny, as he was staging Chicago, the show that would become a pop culture touchstone and an example of Fosse's trademark style of dance.
What allows it to stand out over the hundred odd years of cinema that came before and after it? That's hard to explain, as I'm sure many people find when discussing films they love with every ounce of their heart and soul. To boil it down I would have to say that All That Jazz is the finest culmination of everything great that cinema has to offer. The music, the energy, the beauty, the performances, the design and the joie de vivre that comes when they're all mixed. The climactic scene, a exceptionally constructed and elaborately staged fantasy musical sequence with Roy Scheider and Ben Vereen performing Ray Charles' 'Bye Bye Love' that mirrors the 10-minute opening scene can probably rank as truly the most life-affirming yet downbeat endings in cinema history I've yet experienced.
The rest is more than up to the task of matching the opening and closing sequences for stamina and gleeful, sex-drenched power. All That Jazz is probably a really terrible way to begin one's journey as a cinephile because once you've experienced all the greatness that cinema has to offer in one place it's hard to go anywhere but down.
All That Jazz
Airs 12:05AM, Saturday 13 October on SBS
Director: Bob Fosse
Starring: Roy Scheider, Jessica Lange, Ann Reinking, Leland Palmer, Cliff Gorman
What's it about?
Part tragic, part comic, this is a look at life in the fast lane about Bob Fosse's excessive life in show business. Played by Scheider (in an Oscar-nominated performance), Fosse's alter-ego drives himself over the edge and soon finds he is caught between a recurring fantasy about his death and the reality of a near-death experience.
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