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American Cinematographer Magazine

All That Jazz (1979)
1.85:1 (16x9 enhanced)
Dolby Digital 4.0
Fox Home Entertainment, $14.98

All That Jazz has been an astoundingly difficult title to find in any format for some time, but this gorgeous DVD, facilitated by 20th Century Fox's recent restoration of the film, was worth the wait. Although it has been released on VHS and laserdisc in the past, the film has been essentially out of print for years thanks to a badly worn negative and severely faded CRI opticals. Fox spent 18 months restoring the film, and Giuseppe Rotunno, ASC, AIC, who earned an Academy Award nomination for his cinematography, supervised the color-timing of the restored print.

Though a studio restoration effort usually means a DVD release is around the corner, it seems likely that the recent commercial and critical success of Chicago, an adaptation of Bob Fosse's Broadway musical, helped spur some interest in All That Jazz, which stands as Fosse's most ambitious piece of filmmaking. Along with Fellini's 8 1/2, to which it is often compared, All That Jazz is one of the most exhilarating films ever made about the creative process, an autobiographical account of a successful theater director told through a pastiche of sequences, some realistic and others fantastic, that illustrate the artist's abilities and limitations as he attempts to infuse his life with meaning.

Fosse, who directed, co-wrote and choreographed the film, presents his central character and alter ego, director/choreographer Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider), as a self-destructive, death-obsessed and narcissistic genius whose creative talents compensate for his personal shortcomings. Gideon darts between a Broadway theater, where he is staging his ambitious new musical, and a nearby editing room, where he supervises the cutting of his new feature about a cynical nightclub comic, all while carelessly juggling his own personal relationships. His ex-wife, Audrey (Leland Palmer), a dancer, continues to work with and admire Gideon despite his infidelities, as does his girlfriend, dancer Kate (Ann Reinking). Gideon's most honest exchanges occur with a comely "angel of death" (Jessica Lange), whose presence portends Gideon's coming heart attack. Once the attack strikes, Gideon's world is transformed into an adrenaline-fueled setpiece of stylized, death-themed choreography.

Though it has its share of strong advocates, All That Jazz has also suffered a bit for being difficult to categorize. As Scheider observes in his sporadic audio commentary, the film is a "musical comedy" at its core, which might be why some find it difficult to accept it as a serious and very personal cinematic statement. The film is funny and energetic but also dark and cynical, with disturbing undercurrents that are relatively rare in the musical genre.

As the production got underway, some studio executives thought the film could do without the angel of death character altogether, while others wanted to cut virtually all of the fantasy musical numbers that comprise the third act of the film. Only a last-minute partnership between 20th Century Fox and Columbia Pictures permitted Fosse to finish the film as planned. In hindsight, it's hard to imagine what made the brass think such key elements were expendable.

This disc offers just a few extras: some brief, loosely structured behind-the-scenes pieces and Scheider's occasional remarks, which can be heard at the beginning of various chapters. Some insights from Rotunno, whose photography beautifully blends fantasy and reality, or editor Alan Heim, whose work helps establish the film's relentless energy, would have been welcome.

Thankfully, the transfer is superb. The deep, rich blacks that went milky on the VHS version are intense on this disc, and compression artifacts are not very noticeable, even in big wide shots of a stage packed with dancers. Fox has done a fine job, and perhaps the success of the more straightforward Chicago will prompt viewers to take a second (or first) look at this wonderful film.

-- Jon Silberg

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.