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Fosse Time!: innovation and influence in the films of Bob Fosse

Despite numerous honors throughout his illustrious career, including being the only director to earn the “triple crown” of show business awards—the Oscar, Emmy, and Tony—all in one year, Bob Fosse remains underrated in terms of his influence on the presentation of dance on film. From Sweet Charity, his first film as a director, through his multiple Oscar-winning Cabaret, to his autobiographical, Felliniesque All That Jazz, Fosse created a template for filming dance that has remained influential and remarkably vital years after these films first appeared. Dance-oriented music videos of the ’80s and ’90s by Michael Jackson, Madonna, and others were built on many of the signature Fosse moves. Film musicals from Flashdance to Chicago took his rapid-fire editing style to aggressive extremes. A new generation of music video stars and 21st century filmmakers continue to utilize “Fosse time” editing to ricochet across narrative boundaries.

For many years and with rare exceptions, dance in film followed the example of Fred Astaire, who demanded that directors keep the dancer’s body in full-frame, limit editing, and keep reaction shots to a minimum.

But some exceptions were notable. John Huston’s 1952 Moulin Rouge (a deeply influential film for Fosse) brought the camera in close enough to the Montmartre cabaret dancers to isolate legs, arms, and flashes of profile, and show perspiration and makeup traces in order to capture the immediacy of the performances.

Fosse displayed enormous confidence and imagination as a first-time director adapting his Broadway musical Sweet Charity to the screen in 1969. While all the numbers are striking, the film emerged as too busy and full of gimmicky, self-conscious camera work. “Rich Man’s Frug,” a full chorus set piece that satirizes the then-current “discotechque chic” style and attitude remains true to its stage roots, but Fosse pulls out every cinematic trick to provide movement and variety. The camera rushes in and out on the dancers, frequently crashing into their faces, then zooming back out. Percussive movements, such as fighters’ punches, are aimed directly at the camera. At the climax, the camera dives into the center of the dancers, adding special effects such as strobe lights, film negative exposures, and tinted color saturations. The number ends, appropriately, with a zoom out to a full stage picture. In this number and others in Sweet Charity, Fosse was in search of a means to translate his style of stage movement into cinematic terms.

“Rich Man’s Frug,” served as a blueprint for a whole genre of dance-oriented music videos and is emblematic of Fosse’s choreography: stylized and self-consciously theatrical, frequently calling attention to itself. It is this opportunity for strutting one’s stuff that made Fosse a patron saint for stars of the music video generation. Beyoncé went so far as to adopt the set, costumes, camera angles, and choreographic flourishes of Fosse’s original number in her music video for “Get Me Bodied.”

It’s likely that Fosse first had to make Sweet Charity before he could direct Cabaret. Perhaps it was the gravity of the Weimar Republic setting and its charting the rise of the Nazi party, or maybe Fosse had passed his experimentation phase. His camera showed new maturity and subtlety in filming Cabaret’s musical numbers, all set on the tiny Kit Kat Klub stage.

Its four minutes of highly concentrated dance, camera work, and audacious editing make “Mein Herr,” performed by Liza Minnelli, the ultimate Fosse number. The camera follows her closely, even trailing behind as she moves down stage. Sometimes the camera is nestled in the fly space above the stage, other times it seems to sit in the third or fourth row of the audience and captures waiters passing by. The dancers provide a silent, almost sinister accompaniment, and are shot in sometimes unflattering, but striking close-up, emphasizing the vaguely lewd chair choreography.

The editing of “Mein Herr” captures the details of performance—the strain, sweat, and physical effort of delivering a song and dance—but also its exhilaration. Through fast cuts, zooms, and tight editing, it achieves a unique power. “Mein Herr” made such an impact that later revivals of Cabaret based their television commercials around its camera and editing style.

Cabaret was an international success when it was released in 1972 and established Fosse as a visionary director who had brought the musical film to a new maturity. Before the year was out, Fosse made two more cinematic innovations. First, he directed and choreographed the concert for television, Liza With a Z, shot on film rather than videotape, using eight cameras placed around the theater and on the stage to capture the immediacy of this one-performance only event.

Finally, for Pippin, his then-current musical, Fosse directed the first successful television commercial for a Broadway show. By filming one minute of a dance number from the show, he immediately created a new marketing tool for Broadway.

In 1979, Fosse wrote and directed his most ambitious film. All That Jazz followed a director and choreographer very much like Fosse at a personal and professional crossroads. In the film’s opening number, which depicts an audition for a new musical, set to George Benson’s recording of “On Broadway,” Fosse virtually creates the modern MTV music video. He marshals the full repertoire of camera and editing tools to perform split second cuts that heighten tension. In the most memorable moment, a dozen dancers performing a standard pirouette are edited into one dizzying move.

All That Jazz appeared just two years before MTV broadcast its first music video, but its impact was seen almost immediately in the dance-oriented videos that soon became a staple of the network and emulated his choreography, camera technique, editing style, and theatrical tone. Rob Marshall’s 2002 film version of the Fosse stage musical Chicago reflected the influence of two decades of dance videos which, in turn, had been influenced by Fosse. A through-line can be drawn from Fosse’s first film in 1969 through the MTV-era, up to Chicago, and on to other more recent dance-heavy film musicals like Burlesque, Magic Mike, and the Step Up films.

So thoroughly has Bob Fosse’s dance and film aesthetic been absorbed into the popular culture that it no longer feels revolutionary, but rather part of the mainstream. He continues to cast a shadow over dance on film well into the 21st century.

Featured image credit: Still from Cabaret.

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