Friday, January 13, 2006

All that Jazz

All that Jazz is an extremely ambitious film that does some incredible things with the medium of film. Bob Fosse was best known for his choreography work, but watching this film, it's clear that the man was doing much more than just trying to capture his dance on film, this is a movie that takes full advantage of what you can do with the cinema to tell a story.

In the 70s, right around the time this film came out, Scorsese and Coppola both had monumental failures when they tried to create dark, more reality based musicals. While New York, New York and One From the Heart both have their merits, both films falter on account of the fact that they're trying to recreate 30s musicals with a dark spin, rather than just using the musical form to service a darker story. That's what Fosse does here, it's a very dark film, and the musical numbers are designed to fit within the universe of the film, rather than to rebel against it.

This is one of those films that works wonderfully on screen, but clearly had a lot of trauma behind it. Gideon is a thinly veiled version of Fosse, and creating a film this personal must have been difficult. Where does Gideon end and Fosse begin? I don't know enough about the man himself to really assess that, but it's not essential to enjoying the film. The film's been called self indulgent, and in some respects, it is a bit narcisistic to think that the world needs a film about your life, but in this case, it really does work. Fosse is not easy on himself, the character is presented unsympathetically, and in the end, his personal flaws ultimately overwhelm his artistic genius. Ironically, by making such a great film, Fosse avoided this fate, though he would die of a heart attack a few years after the release of the film.

What makes the film so effective? There's a number of things, one is the basic character arc. This is a really engaging portrait of an artist, showing both the joy and difficulty of creating art. Gideon is at a point in his life where he's been successful, and in many ways that's the worst thing that could happen to him. It builds up a level of expectation for everything he does. This is most apparent in the scene with the television review of 'Stand Up.' After the massive success of 'Cabaret,' there was nowhere left to go, and critics are almost inevitably going to turn against his next film in reaction.

Similarly, on stage, he's struggling to come up with something original, dealing with the pressure of his deadlines. Gideon is so in demand that he has no time for his daughter, no time to forge meaningful connections in his personal life, so he is unable to really embrace his relationship with Kate. He's clearly stretched himself too thin, which is what ultimately leads to his heart attack, and eventually his death.

The story itself is interesting, but it's in the execution that the film stands out. One of the coolest elements is the fantasy sequences, featuring Joe reflecting on his life in the company of 'Angelique,' who we eventually learn is the angel of death. Using these fantasy sequences gives us deep insight into Gideon's psyche that isn't necessarily evident from the real world stuff. The fantasy stuff comes to the fore at the end of the film, and those sequences are absolutely stunning. Besides, being narratively important, the fantasy scenes are aesthetically remarkable. The hyped up neon stages are a great representation of the excess in Joe's life.

Throughout the film, there's a lot of really interesting choices. I liked the repetition of the taking pills and shower wake up montage, and it's possible that this film may have been an inspiration on the similar sequences in Pi. After a quick check of the net, I see that Aronofsky 'presented' a screening of the film in New York a few years ago, and you can definitely see a connection between the two films. The eye closeups prefigure stuff in Requiem for a Dream, and the Tappy Tibbons fantasy sequence at the end of the film could take place in the same neon world as Joe's hallucinations here.

The choice to mute all the sound except for Joe's breathing during the script readthrough sequence was another inspired moment. Another really cool thing was the repetition of the standup comedy routine throughout the film, which worked really well as a comment on the action.

The musical is a form that I think has a ton of untapped potential. I loved Buffy's 'Once More With Feeling,' and in some respects, Magnolia is an Aimee Mann musical. I'd consider the integration of visual and music the 'purest' cinema, so that would make the musical the purest, most cinematic genre. And yet, there's very few films that really use the musical well. This has instantly become my favorite musical film, because it's one of the few completely successful serious musicals.

Like the other aforementioned 70s musicals, this is an update of a classic genre trope, the backstage musical. This film does to the backstage musical what Watchmen did to the superhero comic, completely deconstruct its tropes and bring out the darkness of the themes inherent in the previous films. A movie like 42nd Street says that all it takes to put on a great show is hard work, what this film does is take that message, but show the reality of what doing that work can do to a person.

And yet, much like in Watchmen, you still get the traditional pleasures associated with the genre. The musical numbers here may be offbeat, but they're even more visually interesting than the work in the more traditional Cabaret. The opening 'cattle call' sequence features a stunning pullback as you gradually realize just how many people there are on that stage. This sequence also features some pretty ugly 70s clothes, but it doesn't really distract from the film. Enough years have passed that it no longer looks dated, it's more that the film is a period piece set in the 70s.

In this film, there's a high level of competition for wackiest musical number. One of the early contenders is 'Air-otica.' It's an interestingly staged number, and I'm not really sure what to make of it. The point of it was to show how Gideon's ideas are constrained by the need to make his work palatable to the mass audience. There's a sexuality inherent in his stuff, however, he normally has to keep it within acceptable confines, this number pushes it to the forefront. It also reflects back on his upbringing within the burlesque clubs, clearly those times are still a major influence on him.

The sequence where Kate and Michelle dance for Joe was one of the sweetest moments in the film. The scene where Joe and his daughter dance in the studio felt a bit contrived, like the relationship was there for story purposes, it wasn't real. However, the dance in his house made the relationships feel real, and that's crucial to making the end of the film work.

Some of the stuff during the first chunk of hospital hallucinations felt a bit off, like it was too self consciously weird, or perhaps there were just too many songs spun together. The sequence with all the girls with feathers in particular didn't seem to do much. However, the basic concept of Joe directing a film of all this in his mind was cool enough to make it work. And I really liked some of the makeup and costuming here, particularly Michelle's Ragged Robin style facepaint.

The highpoint of the film was by far the finale, the 'Bye Bye Life' sequence. This is where the film ascends into a 70s lounge version of heaven, and concludes with both a great song and an emotionally riveting narrative conclusion. I love the design here, Joe's shiny coat and all the lights on the stage, though the Kiss outfits on the band didn't quite work. The excess of the whole thing reminded me of the end of Pink Floyd's 'The Wall,' another work that's intensely personal and goes to really strange places, yet somehow pulls it all off and really works. The sequence where Joe says goodbye to everyone he's known is very powerful and I love the way he glides down the hall towards Angelique. This was clearly an influence on the episode of Nip/Tuck where Julia experiences an alternate life while undergoing surgery.

The final moment of the film is incredibly stark after the raucousness of 'Bye Bye Life,' and the abrupt cutoff is jarring. The film's final image is disturbing, but considering what's come before, it was pretty clear that the film couldn't end any other way than with Joe Gideon dead. On the whole, the final sequence is absolutely stunning, I love the way the film moves on to an entirely symbolic plane, using the dream imagery to find an emotional closure that would never be possible in the real world. The dreamstuff makes it possible for Joe's death to be simultaneously sad and jubilant, it's a farewell performance rather than a simple pedestrian death.

Watching this movie made me want to get back into the editing room and take my film to another level. It's a movie that could have been a fairly standard biopic, however through the unique filmmaking, it becomes a full portrait of one man's troubled psyche, that neither romanticizes nor demonizes him, and instead allows the character to rise and fall on his own flaws and merits. It's a riveting, inventive film that shows that sometimes self indulgence works.

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