The FX network’s new bio drama Fosse/Verdon examines legendary choreographer and filmmaker Bob Fosse, dissecting his life, his loves, his career and all that jazz.
At least, I assume it will eventually get to All That Jazz, Fosse’s own semi-autobiographical musical extravaganza. The TV version’s premiere episode focuses mainly on his earlier work.
Recent Oscar winner Sam Rockwell stars as Fosse, while Michelle Williams plays his third wife and artistic muse, the celebrated dancer and actress Gwen Verdon. Current Broadway golden boy Lin-Manuel Miranda is credited as an executive producer, though the extent of his involvement is not clear to me.
The show takes an impressionistic view of Fosse’s life, jumping back and forth through time from his early Hollywood career to what appear to be his final days. On-screen text will periodically identify some of the later events with a countdown timer (“8 Minutes Left,” for example) without telling us what it’s counting down to – Fosse’s death, I assume. The first episode almost entirely skips over his Broadway years, picking up after he’d already been established as an artistic powerhouse on stage but before he’d proven himself in the film business.
Chronologically, events begin with the completion of Sweet Charity, Fosse’s first movie as director. Adapted from a successful play for which he’d won a Tony, the picture should have been a layup. Unfortunately, it turns out to be a significant box office bomb. Negative reviews criticize the replacement of stage lead Verdon with Shirley MacLaine, who Fosse feels was forced on him by the studio. This leaves him both depressed and indignant. It also makes him worry that his success is tied to his wife’s star. He feels a powerful urge to prove himself without her.
For her part, Verdon is supportive of her husband, and doesn’t complain that she was passed over for the movie. She understands how the business works. When they do work together, she’s shown to be an equal artistic collaborator whose efforts make Fosse’s work better, not just a tool at his disposal.
Despite his first failure, Bob talks his way into directing the movie adaptation of Cabaret, which he wants to shoot in Germany… without Gwen. During production, he feels stifled by the meddling of producer Cy Feuer (Paul Reiser), who doesn’t understand his vision and wants him to deliver a more traditional, bright and sunny musical. They repeatedly clash on set over Bob’s perfectionism and his slow pace in shooting.
Feeling cornered, Bob eventually calls Gwen for help. She flies out to Germany to resolve a problem he’d been having with the movie’s costuming. More importantly, she runs interference with Cy, talking the producer down from his panic attacks and buying Bob time to make the movie the way he wants.
For her assistance, Gwen is rewarded with the discovery that her husband’s been cheating on her with a pretty translator. It’s doubtful this is the first time something like this has happened.
Episode Verdict / Grade: A-
Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams are both excellent, and the series is littered with supporting roles that are meant to represent famous figures such as Neil Simon, Paddy Chayefsky, and Shirley MacLaine. Kelli Barrett does a pretty good job of channeling Liza Minnelli. I really enjoyed the behind-the-scenes material that focuses on the mechanics of dance choreography. That stuff is fascinating.
The show is well-written, well-performed, and well-directed in clear homage to Fosse’s All That Jazz. At the same time, it almost can’t help but feel a little redundant to All That Jazz, which covered much of the same ground but felt more personal coming from Fosse’s own perspective. For all its artistic flourishes, the narrative in Fosse/Verdon amounts to a fairly standard bio-pic about a temperamental, tortured artist. What it tries to add is Gwen Verdon’s side of the story, but in doing so, the premiere bends over backwards to paint her as a saint, which I suspect is perhaps an oversimplification of their relationship.
With eight episodes, the miniseries should hopefully have room flesh out both characters more in the subsequent entries. Some quibbles aside, I enjoyed the premiere a lot and look forward to watching the rest.