Tag: Autobiographical films

Belfast (2021)

Belfast (2021)

Kenneth Branagh pays tribute to his early years in Northern Island in this autobiographical film

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Cast: Jude Hill (Buddy), Caitríona Balfe (Ma), Jamie Dornan (Pa), Judi Dench (Granny), Ciarán Hinds (Pop), Lewis McAskie (Will), Colin Morgan (Billy Clanton), Michael Maloney (Frankie West), Lara McDonnell (Moira), Gerard Horan (Mackie), Conor MacNeill (McLaury), Turlough Convery (Minister), Olive Tennant (Catherine)

Directors making films about their childhood is a well-established sub-genre. Fellini got the ball rolling, a few years ago Alfonso Cuarón made his own black-and-white look at growing up in troubled political times in Roma and this year Pablo Sorrentino has released a film focused on his own teenage years in The Hand of God. Huge admirer of Kenneth Branagh as I am, I can’t deny he’s not a unique visionary in the vein of those filmmakers. But, Belfasthas a heartfelt, genuineness and a sweetness that verges just the right side of sentimentality and is a loving tribute not only to the city he grew up in but also to his parents, making it Branagh’s most personal project since In the Bleak Midwinter and possibly his finest non-Shakespeare film.

Branagh’s substitute is 9-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill), the child of a protestant family, living on a cross-community street in August 1969. His main concerns in life are friends, films, football and a classmate he has a crush on at school. But for his parents (Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan), their worries are much more about the growing sectarian violence in the city. Pa has an offer of a job in England, which could bring them a new life. But it means the whole family leaving behind it everything it has ever known, including Buddy’s beloved grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds). As the city becomes more dangerous, what will the family decide to do?

If there is a memory piece Belfast reminds me of most, it’s John Boorman’s Hope and Glory. That film was true to Boorman’s memory, that growing up during the Blitz was also an exciting time, because as a child he never realised that death could be seconds away. It’s the same with Belfast. Branagh is keeps the film as much as possible from the child’s perspective. A child might be aware of the news playing on the TV, see the growing number of soldiers stopping and searching people on the streets and be wrapped up in riots, while never really understanding what exactly is going on.

The film has been unfairly attacked by some for not focusing on the accepted narratives of this era of Belfast’s history: misery, killing and brutality. What Belfast instead brings to the fore is the warm community. Streets where everyone knew your name, people sat outside their homes and chatted with neighbours, shared celebrations together and looked after each other. You can understand why it was such a wrench to leave this behind – even with soldiers patrolling the street. How scary it was for a person of any age – from Buddy to Ma, who has known nothing but Belfast her entire life – to even consider going to a place where no-one would know you and you would be an outsider.

Belfast is dedicated to those who stayed behind, those who left and all the lives who were lost. It’s a tribute to a community spirit and family, that has chimed with a great deal of people who lived in the city at the same time and place. The film is fundamentally hopeful because, under the violence and danger, it makes a plea – and demonstrates – that many people in Ireland just wanted to live their lives and didn’t care which church their neighbours went to. The opening few moments of the film is a snapshot of these halcyon days, kids from different communities playing together on the streets and their families gossiping and laughing together.

It’s shattered by the film’s first outburst of violence, as a Unionist gang attacks the street and hurl Molotov cocktails at the houses of Catholic residents – with Buddy, confused and terrified, caught in the middle and dragged into his house and safety by his frantic Ma. It’s a threat that will hang over the film for the rest of its runtime, embodied by Colin Morgan’s bullying enforcer, but only vaguely understood by Buddy – and considerably less important to him than whether he gets to sit next to the girl he has a crush on at school.

That crush is one of many things he gets advice on from his Grandad, played with a genuinely heart-warming twinkle by an Oscar-nominated Ciarán Hinds. Hinds is the picture of the perfect Grandad, wise, attentive, patient and full of homespun advice and wisdom – dialogue that Hinds brings to life with an expressive warmth. He’s paired to wonderful effect with Judi Dench (also Oscar-nominated) as Buddy’s Granny, who’s got a sharper tongue (and most of the funny lines) and has a cold-eyed realism about what it might be best for her son and his family.

You could check yourself and ask if Branagh is idealising his memories. But I think this is partly the point of the film. At several moments there is a slight air, not so much of fantasy, but of a childhood’s perception and memory being restaged. Jamie Dornan’s hard-working, caring Dad is frequently shot by Branagh in a way reminiscent of the Western heroes in the film buddy watches (High Noon in particular). A late confrontation between Dornan and Morgan plays out like a child’s romanticised memory of how something might have played out – as does a sequence where Dornan and Balfe sing and dance to Everlasting Love. I think Branagh is asking us to consider this might not be exactly what happened, but a fantasy tinged, child’s idealised memory of an event.

And Branagh’s film – shot in a luscious black-and-white – is told with a sharply edited pace and economy. It frequently allows us to see the ‘true’ situation in the background or on the edge of Buddy’s perception. Ma – beautifully played by Caitríona Balfe as grounded, moral but vulnerable and scared – has genuine worries not only about the violence but also the couple’s financial situation. There is an argument, and a later sad half-ultimatum, between Ma and Pa that we understand but Buddy is only vaguely aware is happening. Branagh’s film is full of half moments like this, where he trusts we are intelligent enough to see exactly what the child is seeing and also see more.

Branagh also draws a superb performance from Jude Hill as Buddy. This is a kid who is wide-eyed, natural, unforced and gets the balance just right between sweetness and a childish selfishness and vulnerability. There are real moments of terror and distress for Buddy, which are immensely well-done, and Branagh proves again there are few better directors of actors out there.

In among this there are some lovely moments where we see Branagh’s passion for the arts and film-making take hold. These are shown in splashes of pure colour: from clips of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang which an enraptured Buddy watches in the cinema, to actors performing A Christmas Carol in the Belfast theatre appearing in perfect colour. That’s not to mention touches of everything from Westerns to Star Trek to a shot of Buddy reading a Thor comic-book (sadly no Shakespeare).

Belfast is above all warm-hearted and loving tribute from a son to his parents and the impossible decisions they needed to take to give him opportunities in life they never had. Branagh’s script is crammed with some wonderful lines and plenty of hard-earned sentiment and the cast play each of these moments to perfection. It’s a passion project that really communicates its passion and shows how love, family and hope are universal. Cynics will sneer, but it’s a lovely film.

Almost Famous (2000)

Almost Famous (2000)

Cameron Crowe turns his youth into a hip coming-of-age film with just enough sting among the sentiment

Director: Cameron Crowe

Cast: Patrick Fugit (William Miller), Billy Crudup (Russell Hammond), Frances McDormand (Elaine Miller), Kate Hudson (Penny Lane), Jason Lee (Jeff Bebe), Zooey Deschanel (Anita Miller), Anna Paquin (Polexia Aphodisia), Fairuza Balk (Sapphire), Noah Taylor (Dick Roswell), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Lester Bangs), Terry Chen (Ben Fong-Torres), Jay Baruchel (Vic Munoz), Jimmy Fallon (Dennis Hope), Rainn Wilson (David Felton)

Cameron Crowe fictionalises his teenage years in the warm, affectionate Almost Famous, an endearing, heartfelt riff on the golden years of Rock ‘n’ Roll, when it felt like music could change the world and making the front cover of Rolling Stone was the greatest thing ever. Patrick Fugit plays William Miller (the Crowe substitute), a precocious 15-year-old would-be-music journalist recruited by Rolling Stone to write an article on Stillwater, an up-and-coming new band. Miller adores the music scene and is soon smitten with the lifestyle, Stillwater’s charismatic guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) and most of all “Band Aid” (muse not groupie) Penny Lane (Kate Hudson).

Crowe’s film is a glorious reconstruction of the rock and roll scene of the early 70s – and I can imagine anyone with fond memories of it will find much to love here. It’s not just the fashions and hairstyles, but the glorious capturing of a mood. The whole film is a celebration of a time that felt freer and more idealistic, where the actions and words of a rock band could feel like the most important, beautiful thing in the world. The film is not just nostalgia but also a celebration of a mood of hopefulness that embodied an era.

It’s also a coming-of-age story, as a boy-becomes-a-man. Patrick Fugit is very endearing as a kid no one can quite believe is 15, even though every moment seems to hammer home his fresh-faced innocence. But then it’s not a complete surprise since, thanks to his strong-willed mother having moved him up a class at school and led him to believe he is older than he is. Nevertheless, this is the sort of trip that shapes someone, finding friendship, love, belonging, betrayal, righteous anger and acceptance along the way. All of this is backdropped by the shift of rock and roll becoming something corporations used to make a lot of money.

Stillwater are just on the cusp of this, still clinging to the fun of bussing from gig-to-gig, enjoying the mood, the songs and (of course) the girls. The film is also a celebration in a way of their coming-of-age, the tour starting in a ramshackle bus and ending on a sleek private jet, with accommodation switching from the bus to plush hotels. And along the way, they are trying to work out what they hell they are doing as much as William is. Perhaps that’s why the film feels like it captures the era so well – wasn’t everyone flailing around in the 70s trying to work out if they belonged to the hedonism of the 60s or what would become the Reagonism of the 80s?

But it’s still rock ‘n’ roll, best embodied by Billy Crudup’s charismatic turn as Band icon Russell Hammond. Crudup is all grungy magnetism and shuffling emotional gentleness under the surface of rock star swagger. Not that it stops him from moments of egotism, selfishness and pomposity. You can see why tensions are sometimes high in the band, with the rest of its members often seen as jut Russell’s support group (a band t-shirt causes fury when it shows Russell in the foreground with the other four as shadowy outlines behind him). Russell takes William under his wing, perhaps because he recognises the youth and fragility in William. Or maybe he just likes the hero-worship.

Because one of the dangers of getting close to these stars is getting sucked into hero worship. William is after all a journalist who needs to maintain objectivity. He’s even warned about it by his mentor, fabled music writer Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman in a charismatic cameo) that the biggest danger is succumbing to the charms of the celebrity: these are after all, people who have made it their mission in life to be liked. They’re going to be good at it.

Getting in their airspace can be a dangerous place, as discovered by leading Band Aid Penny Lane, played with a luminous, radiant warmth by Kate Hudson. Penny is a devoted fan, enraptured with being part of the scene and with her self-proclaimed role as muse to the artists. Based on a personal friend of Crowe’s – and, one supposes, his real-life first love – it’s Penny who draws William into this life, looks out for him, cares for him (a favour he is to return in kind). She starts an affair with Russell – but is banished when Russell’s girlfriend rejoins the tour, jokingly traded in a card game with another band for a crate of beer (a reveal Hudson plays with a beautiful mix of devastation and valiant nonchalance). It’s not that Russell’s a bad guy, more that he can’t cope with complexities.

So, you can see why William’s Mum – played with a larger-than-life mix of bullish determination, smothering love and control-freak determination by Frances McDormand – is so worried about him. It’s a sign of the film’s overall warmth (and Crowe’s well-adjusted personality!) that McDormand’s character is treated with the same affection and admiration as everyone else and the love between mother and son is never in doubt. She is responsible for some of the film’s highlights, not least a phone call to Russell where her natural authority quickly reduces him to the overgrown schoolboy he is at heart.

And Almost Famous is a very funny film, riffing off various true life rock-and-roll road trip stories, from raucous parties to accidental electrocutions, like a slightly straighter version of Spinal Tap. It’s capped by a hilarious near-disaster plane flight, where the end seems in sight, leading to a series of ‘confessions’ that become more and more heated and factious as they go on. It’s a film that shows some of the warts of the characters – just as William’s article eventually will for Stillwater – but also their many, many beauty spots. People make mistakes and hurt each other, but life goes on – and we take the punches, but they don’t define us.

Perhaps that’s a big part of growing up: and it’s a growing-of-age film for three characters: William, Penny and Russell. All three of these characters find themselves drawn together, all of them spiritually so close. They hurt each other, betray each other, but they all love each other. It’s a hopeful message, a glorious celebration of a time and era.

8½ (1963)

Marcello Mastroianni plays a version of the director in Fellini’s inspiring

Director: Federico Fellini

Cast: Marcello Mastroianni (Guido Anselmi), Anouk Aimée (Luisa Anselmi), Rossella Falk (Rossella), Sandro Milo (Carla), Claudia Cardinale (Herself), Guido Alberti (Pace – Producer), Jean Rougeul (Carini Daumier), Mario Pisu (Mario Messabotta), Barbara Steele (Gloria Morin), Madeline Lebeau (Herself), Eddra Gale (La Saraghina), Ian Dallas (Maurice, clairvoyant’s assistant)

If there is a single director associated with self-reflecting films its Federico Fellini. Frequently recognised as one of the greatest and most influential directors of all time, many of his films use baroque imagery and a masterful interplay of reality and fantasy to delve deep into both its director’s own subconscious and the swirling pressures and internal conflicts that make us the people we are. is, perhaps, the greatest expression of this style of film-making, a giddy sensory delight that demands investment and wisdom to unpeel its layers and give you a chance of finding its meaning.

Frequent Fellini collaborator Marcello Mastroianni plays Guido, a thinly veiled portrait of Fellini himself. Like Fellini, Guido is a successful and visionary director, facing pressure to come up with his ‘next masterpiece’ after the glorious success of his previous film (in Fellini’s case La Dolce Vita). Like Fellini, Guido is struggling to work out exactly what statement he wants to make next, instead allowing himself to become distracted by personal issues and day-dreaming flights of fancy (literally so in the film’s opening, where Guido imagines himself flying through the sky before being tethered and pulled to earth by his producer). Most of all these distractions revolve around women, from his wife Luisa (Anouk Aimée), his mistress Carla (Sandro Milo) and recurring daydreams of Claudia Cardinale (playing herself) who could just be the muse he is looking for. 

To me one of the things that can make a film great, is when the ideas in it are not obvious and tired, but when they defy obvious characterisation but throw themselves open to further thought and different interpretation depending on your mood. definitely meets this criteria, combined with the fact that it’s beautifully made and very entertaining.

Fellini’s deep dive into his own subconscious is deeply involving and intriguing. The film dances from beat to beat between reality, memory and fantasy – often leaving the lines blurred about which of these we are watching at any one time. That’s part of Fellini’s idea, that our minds are complex enough to exist on all three plains at the same time, to juggle within ourselves what’s real, what we remember, what we imagined or wished could happen and how we create our own versions of all these. 

In the build-up to the film, Fellini famously struggled to identify what he wished to make and what it should be about. But while you could say that Fellini turned this creative block into a film – that, when unsure about what to make a film about, he made a film about a director who didn’t know what to make a film about – that’s to suggest a vagueness in its execution that isn’t the case. Fellini knows exactly what he’s doing here: every scene serves its purpose to explore the ennui and feelings of entrapment that an artist feels, both in his life and his craft. Far from being ambling, the film is carefully constructed and brilliantly focused.

Guido is hounded at every corner by people wanting something from him. Be it producers demanding progress, extras looking for roles in his film, actors demanding insight for their characters to his mistress looking for his attention or his wife demanding more focus from him on their marriage. The film is Guido attempting to identity among all these demands what he needs and wants from his own life – and how to build on that. It’s telling that most of Guido’s fantasies that litter the film revolve around his demands for other people to service him – be that romantically, literally or spiritually. Is part of the point of the film that we are all selfish to some extent? 

It’s the film’s exploration of day-dreaming fantasy that gives it some of its most extraordinary work, coupled with Fellini’s superb and striking visuals. The opening sequences of Guido imaging literally flying out of a traffic jam (and away from the stares of the other drivers) into the freedom of the sky – before being literally pulled back down to Earth – shows how these flights of fancy give us windows into our own desires. Guido’s a confused man looking for focus and something to believe in – his constant fantasies of Claudia Cardinale seem in part longing for her to solve his creative problems, part sexual, part almost motherly, as if she can take some decisions away from him.

Other fantasies – such as an imagined conversation with a priest for spiritual guidance – lean on finding the sort of structure his life seems to be missing. (And also, in a fantasy confession of his ennui to the same priest, perhaps a need again to be told what to do.) Most of his fantasies though revolve around romance. He imagines his wife and mistress sharing anecdotes before dancing away arm-in-arm. Most famously, an extended sequence shows Guido imagining a harem containing all the woman in his life, where he is the centre of attention – and women who age beyond his interest are politely banished upstairs “to be well looked after”. The women range from long-standing crushes and mistresses, to half-glimpsed dancers and an air hostess with a sexy voice. 

There is a striking honesty about Fellini putting something like this on film – and then use the fantasy he is displaying to both comment on and criticise his own internal fantasies. In the fantasy, unlike real life, his wife is an almost maternal figure (Guido has already jumped at one point in his reverie earlier in his film, to remember his mother only for her to turn into his wife), the women address Guido with harsh truths about everything from his character to his sexual performance, a revolt breaks out in the fantasy harem at Guido’s banishing of early crushes as they age (one which Guido stamps out). The harem is further set within his childhood home, adding a whole other layer of odd sexuality to it, as part of the women’s duties are to bath and wash him exactly as his grandmother did as a boy. It’s a sequence that lays itself open to multiple interpretations, but never feels exploitative or sleazy.

Large chunks of the rest of the film take place in a hard-to-define space between dream, memory and reality. Frequently scenes shift in nature half way through – Guido is followed throughout the film by a critic-turned-screenwriter, full of criticism of the intellectual shallowness of his work who, mid-rant, he imagines taken away for execution by some toughs. Gentle tracking shots around the retreat Guido is staying at – scored with a mixture of classical music and Nina Rota’s wonderful score – trip a line between real and imaginary in the sights we see. Conversations are intercut with imagined moments or might simply be happening in a pretence rather than a reality.

If it sounds like a difficult view, it’s not. Because for all the intelligent analysis of the ennui that can come from a creative block and the internalised struggle to find a balance between all the impulses that pull on us, it’s also a hugely entertaining film. Funny, wise and superbly acted. Mastroianni is brilliant as Guido, in turns giddy and world-weary, confused and resigned then ambitious and dreamlike. The rest of the cast are also excellent, with Anouk Aimée delightful as his long-suffering wife and Sandro Milo hugely entertaining as a needy but largely ignored mistress.

Fellini’s dives into memory also add both a richness and an emotional heft to the film. There are some beautifully nostalgic sequences that head back into the past. Guido’s childhood is explored with a series of wonderful vignettes. From his childhood in a wine distillery with his grandmother and aunts, full of playful energy, to the first stirring of a sexual awakening watching a prostitute dance on the beach (a quite extraordinary scene of playful flirtation, but still rather oddly innocent in its way). These scenes have captured the imagination of directors across the globe, with their power and ability to capture both the nostalgia of recollection, but also a distant magic of memory and the impact these still have on us in the present. But no body does this better than Fellini.

The best thing that can be said about is that I can imagine watching it hundreds of times, and each time seeing something fresh and new about it. And it works because its ideas are profound without being pretentious and easy enough to engage with, while never shallow. It brings depth and richness to complex internal struggles and repackages these into a rich experience that enlightens both memory and creativity. A great movie.

All That Jazz (1979)

Roy Scheider plays the director Bob Fosse in a barely-veiled-at-all autobiographical film All That Jazz

Director: Bob Fosse

Cast: Roy Scheider (Joe Gideon), Jessica Lange (Angelique), Leland Palmer (Audrey Paris), Ann Reinking (Katie Jagger), Cliff Gorman (Davis Newman), Ben Vereen (O’Connor Flood), Erzsebet Foldi (Michelle Gideon), David Marguiles (Larry Goldie), Michael Tolan (Dr Ballinger), Max Wright (Joshua Penn), William LeMassena (Jonesy Hecht), Deborah Geffner (Victoria Porter), John Lithgow (Lucas Sergeant)

It’s revealing when a director makes an autobiographical film. There are insights to be found about the sort of person they are – and the sort of person they want to present themselves as to the world. And All That Jazz is possibly the most striking autobiographical film ever made. You have to have a towering amount of ego to make a film showing yourself as a deliriously talented polymath, generally liked by everyone. And then you have to have a giddy self-awareness to give your semi-fictional doppelganger all your titanic faults, selfishness, cruelty and flaws. Let’s not even get into the psychology of turning your own death into a musical number, eight years before it happened.

Just like Bob Fosse, Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) is a hugely influential choreographer and director who has changed the face of Broadway musicals before going on to become the Oscar-winning director of a string of critically acclaimed films. He is also a workaholic, addicted to a string of prescription drugs, a never-ending smoker, with a strong of failed marriages and affairs behind him. Just like Bob Fosse, in 1975 Gideon is staging his ground-breaking original production of a musical (Fosse was directing Chicago which clearly inspired the unnamed musical here), starring his ex-wife (and mother of his daughter) Audrey Paris (Leland Palmer, a frequent Fosse collaborator), living with his girlfriend Kate Jagger (played by Ann Reinking, who was Fosse’s real life girlfriend at the time). At nights and weekends he is editing The Stand-Up (a version of Fosse’s film about stand-up Lenny Bruce titled Lenny starring Dustin Hoffman). When he has a near fatal heart attack part way through this, Gideon starts to sink. Fosse on the other hand used the experience to write this movie. 

All That Jazz is an electric piece of film-making, full of Fosse’s dynamism. It’s not only crammed with fabulous song and dance numbers (some of the best Fosse work you’ll see) but it’s beautifully edited and paced. Fosse holds it all together so brilliantly you never feel the thing teeter on the tightrope like Gideon does (the first image of the film is appropriately Gideon walking a tightrope). It perfectly captures the high intensity, killer pressure of maintaining this constant state of activity, and suggests how much Fosse (clearly) believed his own life was a performance, every moment constructed and staged for maximum impact. 

And that’s what you wonder about the film. Does Fosse hate himself, love himself or some combination of both? It’s something the film just teases, with Gideon indulged in a series of fantasy-tinged cryptic conversations with Jessica Lange (another Fosse conquest allegedly) as some sort of angel dressed in white. Here Gideon of course flirts and charms as only he can, while answering with ambiguous amounts of truthfulness a series of questions about love, his background, his wishes and dreams. But even when he says these things, there is the half smile that suggests it’s only part of the story. Or maybe Gideon himself doesn’t even know where life ends and the story begins.

Fosse’s film is just about perfectly structured. Repeatedly we see Gideon going through the same daily ritual when he wakes up: Vivaldi, shower, cocktail of prescription drugs, eye drops, slap hands, “It’s a show time!” (with an ever increasing struggle to keep the energy up). As the tempo of this repeated introduction changes through the film, you get a perfect idea of the state of Gideon’s mind and mood – and his relentless attempt to turn his own life into a perfect performance.

In among all this, perhaps no film has ever showed a better understanding of the pressures of creating a Broadway musical. The opening sequence follows a series of exhausting auditions from literally hundreds of dancers desperate for a role in Gideon’s show, slowly being whittled down to the chosen few. The rehearsals are a punishing series of deconstructions as the dancers strive to match Gideon’s perfectionism. Rehearsal rooms are crammed, sweaty and uncomfortable. The money men hover over every scene, with an eye on protecting their investment. And then, we see the results suddenly of Gideon’s work with a Chicago-ish dance routine so sexually charged it is positively indecent. It’s genius on at least three levels.

The film revolves around Gideon, and the amount of time squeezed out of his personal life by his never-ending, passionate work commitments. Leland Palmer is excellent as his loving but deeply frustrated wife, supportive but all too aware of Gideon’s selfishness. The bond between them feels strong, real and above conventional marriage. Ann Reinking is equally marvellous as his lover, protégé, partner and you name it. Between these three characters there is a hugely warm performance from Erzsebet Foldi as Gideon’s shrewd but loving daughter. Fosse isn’t afraid to sprinkle real moments of family warmth in, as if trying to show Gideon all the things he is missing out on – one particularly outstanding moment is a song-and-dance routine Reinking and Foldi perform for Gideon after the premiere of his film The Stand-Up, as entertaining as it is charming.

But the film’s secondary motor, after Fosse’s directing brilliance (seriously, there are few Hollywood directors so undervalued, the man is a genius) is Roy Scheider as Gideon. I can’t really imagine a more bizarre sounding bit of casting: Jaws Chief Brody as a song-and-dance man, the world’s greatest (even slightly camp) choreographer. But Scheider is simply sublime in this role. It’s a towering, landmark performance of total commitment. He’s achingly human, supremely sad but also overflowing with warmth, humanity and humour while also being repeatedly selfish, difficult and demanding. It’s a performance of total absorption.

By time of the finale number (a truly bizarre version of Bye Bye Love, renamed Bye Bye Life, in which Gideon lives his final moments in a fantasy world, singing and dancing his way towards death in front of an audience of faces from past and present) the whole thing is so wonderfully overblown it doesn’t really matter. The film’s passage into the surreal and fantasy as Gideon gets increasingly ill (while showing less and less regard for his own health) will be a bit much for some, but I was honestly so into it that I didn’t care. 

Because the film is about this acute piece of self-analysis from the director, a Fellini-inspired sort of musical , in which the understanding (or lack thereof) we get of Gideon, and which he gains about himself, is most important. His conversations with Lange’s angel of death are intriguing and as informative about the man he really is as the man he wants to be. 

Fosse’s film is simply supremely well directed (Kubrick called it one of the best films he ever saw). Fosse’s editor (playing himself in the film as the editor of The Stand-Up) said if Fosse had actually died during the making of the film, he would have made sure his death was filmed and edited into the movie. I can believe it. The only musical you’ll ever see which doubles as a confession and a condemnation, which turns death and surgical procedures into wham bam musical numbers, and which never becomes maudlin or sentimental about the self-inflicted disaster the director is putting on himself – it’s brilliant.