In the last month, I finally got around to seeing two works widely considered classics: Dennis Potter’s BBC The Singing Detective and Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz. I was impressed by both, although neither is exactly what I would call fun. (The lead characters aren’t very nice guys!)
It’s odd how two works of art can be so closely related, probably almost by pure coincidence. Both strongly feature a hospitalized main character ruminating over his life. Both characters regret having estranged themselves from their wives. (Both feature a moment where the character gets a boner from a nurse applying treatment!) And both are (barely) musicals, with elaborate fantasy sequences.
Jazz came out in 1979 and Detective in 1986. Yet Potter was partially adapting his own novel from 1973 and had used the same “characters break into old pop recordings” device in Pennies From Heaven in 1978. (That’s the BBC series starring Bob Hoskins although he also wrote the screenplay for the 1981 film starring Steve Martin.)
The similarities are in the authors’ lives, as both works are partially autobiographical. (Jazz was co-written with Robert Alan Aurthur although the story is supposed to be based on his life.)
Both writers came from difficult homes. Both originally wanted to be something else (Fosse a musical film star, Potter a journalist-turned-politician). Both turned to different careers because of physical limitations (looks for Fosse, advancing psoriasis for Potter). And both men were absolutely addicted to adultery.
Another odd similarity is that both works use old songs. Fosse’s previous musicals featured original songs used in the stage production. Yet almost all the songs in Jazz are new recordings of old pop classics. All the songs in Potter are old.
Maybe both men looked back nostalgically on old music as they thought about mistakes they’d made. I’ll do that — I’ll hear a song from 1991 I haven’t heard in years, and remember the dumb decisions I was making back then.
Jazz holds up better (maybe not the “sexy airline” number). For one thing, it’s shorter. The disjointed movement between fantasy and reality in Detective repeats itself a few times over the course of six hours. Also, Jazz has two terrific star turns (Scheider as Gideon/Fosse and Leland Palmer as Gven Verdon), while Detective really only has one (Michael Gambon as Marlow/Potter).
One of the best scenes in Jazz is Verdon at rehearsal chewing out Gideon for being such a shitty husband. All the while, she continues to dance in perfect form. Detective never has a confrontation between equals like that.
Still, I’m glad I watched both. How odd to have missed two acclaimed works for years, watch them so close together, and have them share so much in common! One of life’s little coincidences.
On Hulu, there’s a miniseries, “Fosse/Verdon” that has fantastic performances by Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams. (They’re good in everything, so no surprise.) Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is just okay. And the show’s twice as long as it needs to be. I’d seen it before. It was worth rewatching the first and last episodes to see the performances again.
The show ends with Fosse dying in Verdon’s arms outside the theater premiering the revival of “Sweet Charity that Fosse directed and Verdon’s helped with choreography. This almost happened! He died a few blocks away in real life, but it was Opening Night.
Incidentally, in the special features on the Detective and Jazz discs, Fosse comes across a bit egotistical. Potter comes off as a bit of a woman-hating psycho. Neither are ideals, of course. Just to be Judgy McJudge, though, I can forgive ego in a director/choreographer more than misogyny in a writer. OTOH, though, Potter’s physical problems were over more of his life and less a product of self-destructive behavior. Oh, well, let ye without sin cast the first wagging finger…