Thursday, March 17, 2011

THE MOVIE THAT CHANGED MY LIFE


Each of us has movies that changed our life. (And please tell me yours at the end of this post.) Some of the seminal movies in my life still have a hold on me, like THE SOUND OF MUSIC. I still get goosebumps every time that crane shot swoops in over Julie Andrews on that mountaintop in the film’s opening moments. Other movies that once had a similar impact on me don’t anymore. I saw GREASE in the theater four times as a teenager, but now I can’t watch the darn thing all the way through. But when I love a movie I really love a movie and will not hesitate to pay to see it over and over again. And in all of my movie-going years, there’s only one movie that has the distinction of being one I saw in the theaters six times. The year was 1979 and the movie was ALL THAT JAZZ.
 

In 1979 I was a freshman attending the Minneapolis College of Art & Design. I was a somewhat naïve and sheltered kid from Wisconsin who could draw and had lots of imagination, but I had yet to understand what being an artist was about. I would soon find out. And ALL THAT JAZZ would be as good as any class I was attending.

ALL THAT JAZZ is a movie directed by, written by, and about Bob Fosse. Fosse was a major force in entertainment and a consummate artist.  And boy was he prolific. He was a director of movies like CABARET and LENNY; he wrote, directed and choreographed Broadway shows like PIPPIN and CHICAGO; and he directed TV specials too like LIZA WITH A Z.  He won an Oscar, Emmy and Tony all in one calendar year. He defined the term “multitasker” before the word was even invented!

Needless to say, Fosse was driven. Thus, so is the character based on him in the movie.  Joe Gideon (a bravura turn by Roy Scheider) is a director of both film and stage, and in ALL THAT JAZZ, he’s working on a LENNY-like movie as well as a PIPPIN-like musical simultaneously. The stress is driving him a little nuts. But work is an addiction to him. So are uppers, downers, sex, booze, cheating and lying. It’s the portrait of an artist who’s as insecure as he is talented. The same drive that compels him to try to create extraordinary works is also killing him. When he has a heart attack halfway through the movie, the tragedy doesn’t curb his art, it escalates it. Every thought in his head becomes a phantasmagorical production number, a fever dream halfway between brilliance and a body bag.
Roy Scheider as Joe Gideon in ALL THAT JAZZ
For a small town boy like me, this portrayal of an artist and creativity blew me away. Was this the kind of angst and addiction I would have to experience to become an artist?  In my high school, art seemed easy. I was easily the best art student there and when I created it seemed more like playing than working. But then because of ALL THAT JAZZ, I started to see that the task of being truly artistic required a lot more thought, a lot more effort, and a lot more elbow grease. It wasn’t long before I, inspired by ALL THAT JAZZ, was burning the midnight oil in my own quest for artistic perfection. Luckily I didn’t fall into any drugs or womanizing, but I did consider growing a goatee until I realized I didn't have any facial hair to speak of.

And as a budding artist, and a movie fan, I was blown away by the absolute artistry in this film. I had never seen a movie so chock full of melodrama, energy, rapid-fire editing, sumptuous production design, bitchy dialogue, show tunes, rock music and all sorts of visual effects - this wasn't just a movie, it was one mindf**k, a sensational sensory experience. And it was funny and raunchy, I laughed throughout at the virtual cornucopia of copulation, drugs and Ethel Merman. I sure wasn’t in Wisconsin anymore. Or even Minneapolis. I was in the mind of Bob Fosse. 

I'll never forget his brilliantly staged and edited opening. It's a long scene where Gideon auditions hundreds of dancers for his Broadway show. It is simply one of the greatest edited pieces of film ever put together. Scored to the great song "On Broadway" by George Benson. I've uploaded it below for you to watch and be mesmerized by it as I was all six times I saw it in the theater in Minneapolis. Tell me it doesn't give you an awe-inspiring thrill of something new and over-the-top, the way Oz certainly must have seemed to the farm girl Dorothy Gale when she first walked through her black and white world into a more colorful and vivid existence. 

Bob Fosse/Joe Gideon was my introduction to the potential of art. Big, bold, eye-catching, life changing. It showed me what an artist could be. And what a movie could do. It made me aware of technique and discipline and the struggle to find meaning in what you're creating. Whether you’re a writer, painter, sculptor, filmmaker, dancer or singer, you will be able to relate. And even if you're not in a creative field, we are all artists, creators in one way or another. And we all know what it's like to feel insecure and wonder if we are having any affect whatsoever. I entered college a naïf and left ready for the good fight. I knew art would be a struggle. But it would also be beautiful. And ALL THAT JAZZ showed me the way. 
Director and choreographer Bob Fosse
That’s why it is the movie that changed my life. It made me realize that despite all the angst, a creative profession was well worth it. ALL THAT JAZZ is a movie about trying to make the most out of life. And sometimes out of art. Do yourself a favor, see it. It may not change your life like it did mine. But it's a helluva ride.

10 comments:

  1. Would you say that All That Jazz is your favorite film? because, I don't think I would say that the film that changed my life is my favorite. My favorite film is Taxi Driver because it pushed my limits. It opened my mind into the idea of "not everything you see is true." A meta film above all others.
    The film that opened my eyes as a young lad would be Jurassic Park. One of the first films I ever witnessed. And I know for sure it was the first I ever saw twice in the theater. It captured me, sucked me in completely as a captivated 6 year old. I bought into it all. These were real people and damn it, there were real dinosaurs. The magic of motion pictures sparked my love and has stayed with me ever since.
    My father would take me to the theater every sunday. It wasn't until high school when this stopped. I've always said that instead of church I went to the cinema. Ever since that late evening when we saw Jurassic Park. I knew that this would be the deity I followed.
    Great Post Jeff. It made me all nostalgic inside

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  2. The film that had the biggest impact on me as an impressionable teen was GONE WITH THE WIND. I first saw it on network TV in the late 70’s, and watched it every year I could (no video then!). I bought the thick paperback book in high school and remember it is the only book I have ever read cover to cover 3 or 4 times. Besides enjoying the majesty of a brilliantly-told story of epic proportions, and the comedy and tragedy of Rhett and Scarlett, I have remembered how Ms. O’Hara endured hardships with a strength she never knew she had. And I have tried to emulate that kind of courage and optimism during life’s hard times myself. The fact that I was recently able to get my 21-year-old daughter-in-law to watch – and love! – a 70-year-old film is testament to its timeless appeal.

    Twin Features, you are not alone in your thoughts about JURASSIC PARK. My son was also a 6 year old when that film came out. Every kid in town that hot summer was in line for it. He was mesmerized at first, then forgot it wasn’t real and wanted to leave when the T-Rex appeared in full force and effect. The sights, the sounds, the reality of it was too much. I was ready to comply with his request, when he reconsidered, and couldn’t tear himself away from it. We ended up seeing it several more times. From that day on, he spent the rest of his childhood playing with, reading about, and studying dinosaurs – far more than anything else. That film changed his life.

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  3. Twin Features, thanks for sharing your thoughts! Great, as always. ALL THAT JAZZ is not my favorite movie, though it's probably in my top 25 or 30, but it was the one that hit me and changed a lot for me as I said. I too love TAXI DRIVER and am always up for movies that change my point of view or expand it. So many of the movies of the 70's did that, and I wish more did today.

    And as for JURASSIC PARK, not only do I think it's one of the greatest thrillers ever as it was the last film I was truly on the edge of my seat for virtually the whole time, but its special effects were a marvel then and still hold up today. (Can't say that about a lot of special effects heavy movies that once dazzled. The flying sequences in the Christopher Reeve SUPERMAN movies come immediately to mind as those effects sequences have not aged well.) But JURASSIC PARK made me believe that dinosaurs were on the screen. Just like you. What a marvelous accomplishment that was just on its own.

    Some time soon I will talk more about other movies that impacted me greatly. Films like ANIMAL HOUSE, REAR WINDOW, THE GODFATHER, LA CONFIDENTIAL, JAWS, SCARFACE, SEVEN, the work of the Marx Brothers and Charlie Chaplin, to name some older ones, as well as more recent cinematic experiences BLACK SWAN, THE SOCIAL NETWORK and A SINGLE MAN. But you're so right, Twin Features, seeing a movie in the big, dark theater is a religious experience in a way. My weekend ventures to the movie houses are like visiting cathedrals to me. And seeing great art, especially coming from Hollywood, is always a moving and life changing experience in its way!

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  4. Fan With No Name, thanks for sharing with me your very lovely and personal story about GONE WITH THE WIND and JURASSIC PARK. I've said quite a bit already about the dinosaurs, so let me now tell you some of my thoughts on GWTW. It is my mother's favorite movie, so it's one I've heard about all my life, though I myself did not get around to seeing it until about 15 years ago. Luckily for me, it was during one of its big re-releases on the big screen, so I was able to see it the glorious way it was originally intended. And I must say I was simply blown away by so many things in it. The seminal Vivian Leigh performance, of course, as well as the lush production values and Max Steiner's sweeping score - just to name three stand-outs! What blew me away most though was how edgy the whole story was. Most people think old movies are quaint or lacking in depth compared to more modern fare, but this is not the case here. This was a hard and mean story about two tremendously damaged people, Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler. At first they circle around each other like wary and suspicious lions. But then they can't fight the chemistry and they fall into a long and complex relationship filled with passion, love and yes, hatred. Not for nothing are their names suggestive of red - the color of fire, passion and yes, blood. God knows they could've made a couples therapist a very rich man if those kinds of doctors existed at the time! For a film from 1939 to be able to speak so strongly to the battle of the sexes was revelatory. And of course, it had more than a few things to say about war, politics and the suppression of people as well. This was spellbinding cinema that made me angry that I hadn't experienced it earlier in my life. That afternoon, after the movie ended, I promptly went across the street to the Virgin record store and bought the DVD. I try to watch GWTS every couple of years now. It is a film worth revisiting again and again. As you know all too well. It is a classic film, perhaps the greatest "Hollywood" movie ever made. But more importantly, it is a great film. One that is full of deep emotion and challenging ideas. It's as relevant to today's world as something modern like THE SOCIAL NETWORK. And it was one of those movies that had a tremendous impact on my life, just like ALL THAT JAZZ.

    Thanks again for sharing.

    And I hope more share their life changing movie experiences with all of us here as well.

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  5. I didn’t think I had a movie that changed my life at all...I have a few movies that I adore more than all the others and can see over and over again. It’s A Wonderful Life, The Wizard of Oz, White Christmas, Duck Soup and Lost in America, are my faves- but none of them can I honestly say changed my life in any way, other than giving me great joy.

    But the more and more I thought about it, I remembered the movie that was , for me, the movie that affected my life more than any other. But, it was more the experience of seeing the movie rather than the movie itself.

    My movie is “Heaven Can Wait” and the reason for it lies in my absolute, head over heels, eleven year old girl, love for Warren Beatty. I had never seen any of his films before, didn’t know who he was--- in fact, I think it was one of the first PG movies I was allowed to see. I was star struck and totally infatuated, to say the least.

    I saw the movie at least 10 or 11 times in the theater. I became obsessed with all things Warren Beatty- which introduced me to some amazing films: The Parallax View, Bonnie and Clyde, Splendor in the Grass, All Fall Down, etc . I saw them all . I covered my walls with his posters- I watched all of his sister Shirley’s films...my Beatty obsession led me to learn all about the earlier days of Hollywood- since he’d been around for a long while, as well as “been around”....I knew more about him and Hollywood than anyone I knew---I’d watch things with Diane Keaton simply because he was dating her, which led me to Annie Hall and started me off into the world of Woody Allen...My Beatty craze went on for years- and led me down many interesting roads.

    Besides being the one movie that set off a snowball effect of all things Beatty-esque or that can be traced back to him somehow, it was because of that experience that I found my singing voice. And I never realized that before . I was still just a kid- no music other than “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero” 45 and a Partridge Family album..... Silly as it is, it was when I found out that WB might be the vain one in a song called “You’re So Vain” that I pulled the album out of my older sister’s record collection and played it over and over again, singing along to Carly Simon , liking her music...listening, then, to James Taylor and then Linda Ronstadt and all the other great albums in my sister’s room (ruining them, I’m sure in the process)....getting lost in the music---- and finding my own voice and the fact that I had a special one.

    Who knows when, and if , I ever would have stumbled on it any other way? But- I do know it was that obsession with Warren Beatty, all stemming from “Heaven Can Wait” that sent me in a tizzy into my sister’s room to dig through her albums. Finding my voice was HUGE for me- and even though I kept it hidden for many years, it was my own private secret weapon and a little piece of self esteem that kept me going though the rough years of adolescence and beyond.

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  6. Christine, what a wonderful story! Indeed, Warren Beatty was so darn good in HEAVEN CAN WAIT. He is one of those rarest of talents who can act, shine in both dramas and comedies, write and direct. And God knows he has a certain way with women. Glad that he helped you discover your voice and a way through tough times. I really appreciate your sharing this with all of us. Just beautiful.

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  7. Gone with the Wind, hands down. (Does an Atlanta native who was born on Peachtree Street have any other choice?) I was lucky enough to see it for the first time in the theater where it premiered, Loew's Grand (also on Peachtree St.), when it was restored in 1966, for my 10th birthday. Even at that age I knew it was extraordinary. If you had told that 10 year-old that 45 years later she would own the Blueray DVD and be able to watch it any time she wanted . . . actually, I think I'll go watch it right now. It's been a year or so!

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  8. And Jeff, thanks for the opportunity to see that fabulous clip from All That Jazz . . . I think I need to see that one again too. Wow!

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  9. Jeff -

    I've been wanting to respond to this post for awhile now! I LOVE your story about All That Jazz.

    I don't have a story nearly as compelling or interesting. I'm not sure that I have a movie that changed my life. But I do have one that opened my eyes to a whole genre.

    My parents brought home the two-cassette VHS tapes of THE KING AND I when my sisters and I were young. I don't remember what age. But I do remember kicking and screaming and complaining: WHY do we have to watch this stupid movie? What a waste! WHO CARES about a king in a country I'd never heard of? NO NO NO NO NO!

    Well, by the end of cassette 1, we were begging our parents to let us stay up past our bedtime and see how the story ended. I was in love. And it came full circle, when years later, I performed as the first chair violinist in the pit orchestra for our high school production of THE KING AND I. I got to learn the music from the inside-out and appreciated it that much more.

    My favorite movies are not all musicals. But they tend to be. I still love THE SOUND OF MUSIC and cry even more, now that I'm older and watch it with my own kids. I consider THE COMMITMENTS a musical, and that has always been one of my go-to's. I STILL listen to that soundtrack. And do you remember when they re-released The Beatles' A HARD DAY'S NIGHT at the movie theaters? I had an epiphany that day, sitting in the theater in Detroit, watching the baby-faced Beatles as they were about to embark on a career that has touched so many of us. And so bittersweet, because we know how it ends.

    Movies that aren't musicals, but where music figures prominently, are also some of my favorites. BILLY ELLIOTT...sigh. The scene with the mine workers battling the police as London Calling by The Clash blasts in the background, or when Billy takes his anger out on his tap shoes while A Town Called Malice by The Jam pushes him on...I LOVE that shit!!!!

    So those are my stories. Thanks for asking the question. It really made me think about the things I love most about the movies, and what a fun trip.

    - Gillian

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  10. Red Clay Lady, I love what you said. It seems Scarlett left quite the impression on so many of us! And do see ALL THAT JAZZ again. So much of it still looks fresh and utterly provocative. ("Take off with us!")

    And Gillian, thanks for sharing the many movies that moved you. I saw THE KING AND I when I was in junior high and loved it too. And it was hardly the typical movie a 7th grade boy would dig but there you go. Yul Brynner was amazing. Equally so that same year in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS and ANASTASIA. (1956 was quite the year for him!)

    And you make me want to revisit BILLY ELLIOTT again. I missed the Broadway musical which I hear is outstanding as well. Here's a bit of trivia for you about that movie - its director Stephen Daldry has only directed three movies and yet he has received an Academy Award nomination for best director for all three! BILLY ELLIOTT, THE HOURS and THE READER. That's some track record, eh? Similarly, Bob Fosse only directed five movies but got Oscar nominations for directing three of them - CABARET, LENNY and ALL THAT JAZZ. (The other two movies he directed were SWEET CHARITY, his first, and STAR 80, his last.)

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