|Although not his last major project, Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz is the culmination of a lifetime of work on stage and screen, a fantastical rumination on impending death by one of the great creative innovators of the second half of the twentieth century. Fosse would go on to live for another eight years (he died of a heart attack in 1987), but you can sense in the film the expectation that his life is coming to a close, which had almost happened five years earlier when he nearly drove himself into cardiac arrest while simultaneously editing his film Lenny (1974) and rehearing the first Broadway stage production of Chicago. All That Jazz emerged out of that harrowing experience, as he was popping amphetamines, eating horribly and barely sleeping, overworking his body and mind to a point of collapse.|
All That Jazz takes place within the same milieu, with Roy Scheider playing Fosse’s on-screen surrogate Joe Gideon, a Broadway choreographer and film director who, like Fosse, dresses all in black, sports a pointy gray beard, and is rarely if ever seen without a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. Fosse repeatedly denied that he and Gideon were the same, but the similarities—physically, personally, professionally—are too obvious to read the film as anything other than openly autobiographical. Given that Fosse himself was prone to depression and self-deprecation, it is no small surprise that his depiction of Gideon is something less than flattering. All That Jazz is anything but a hagiography, although it makes no bones about the Gideon’s creative genius, even if said genius keeps him from investing himself fully in his relationships, whether it be with his current girlfriend (Ann Reinking), his ex-wife with whom he still collaborates creatively (Leland Palmer), or his 12-year-old daughter (Erzsebet Foldi). It is telling that, when Joe does connect with those closest to him, dancing is somehow involved. It’s how he communicates.
Taking a cue from Federico Fellini’s autobiographical fantasia 8 ½ (1963), Fosse and co-screenwriter Robert Alan Arthur structure the film around Joe’s artistic struggles, in this case editing his latest film (The Standup, which is clearly a nod to Lenny) and choreographing a new Broadway show (the overly chipper composer of which is a none-too-subtle jab at Steven Schwartz, with whom Fosse famously clashed on Pippin). Also like 8 ½, the film frequently cuts away from the reality of Gideon’s life to an internal fantasy world in which he discusses his life—and all its attendant mistakes—with a beautiful woman in white (Jessica Lange) who we eventually come to realize is the Angel of Death.
These interludes serve the dual purpose of allowing Fosse to deal creatively with the necessity of flashbacks, such as Gideon’s early years hoofing it as a teenager in cheap burlesque clubs, and also injecting gloriously fantastical musical numbers to showcase his unique choreography. Thus, All That Jazz merges the two major variations of the movie musical—the backstage musical and the fantasy musical—which allows Fosse to have his cake and eat it, too. He gets to indulge the impossible whimsy of an internal world where rules don’t apply while also acknowledging the sweaty, gritty, body-breaking realities of Broadway choreography, which finds its apotheosis in Gideon’s erotically charged staging of an otherwise blithe musical number that he presents to his show’s nervous producers.
Although Roy Scheider was not the first choice to play Gideon (his Jaws cast-mate Richard Dreyfus was originally cast, but left during rehearsals when the project was delayed for several months), it is hard to imagine the film with anyone else in the role. With his angular face, intense eyes, and sinewy body, he is the perfect embodiment of an artist on the edge. It also does not hurt that he had played largely sympathetic roles—typically decent, blue-collar leaders in extraordinary circumstances as in Jaws (1975) and William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977)—which helps make Joe, an amoral, self-centered womanizer and all-around cad, a more relatable character. The scene in which he delights to watching his girlfriend and daughter perform an elaborate dance routine for his birthday reminds us that his humanity persists behind the cloud of drugs, smoke, and delusion. Similarly, the scenes with Lange betray a sense of vulnerability and honesty that tinge his uglier moments with Fosse’s own sense of self-loathing. Scheider sings and dances, but most of all he bares his frailty, a crucial dimension to a film about a man who is effectively on his deathbed.
But did I mention that All That Jazz is often very funny? Although not directly a comedy, Fosse clearly recognizes the inherent absurdities of show business—which he both loves and hates—and he has great fun with nervous producers (particularly Max Wright’s exasperated film producer), opportunistic competitors (best seen in John Lithgow’s smug theater director who is all to willing to take over Gideon’s project), and the various unheralded minions who make the show go on. Like many of Fosse’s characters, Gideon is a Svengali, lording over the dancers who struggle to learn his moves and embody his creative spirit. It is fitting, in this regard, that the film opens with a “cattle call,” in which Gideon selects a handful of dancers from a stage full of hopefuls of varying degrees of desperation. His own burned-out ethos is portrayed as an inevitable result of his artistic determination, and everything else—wives, daughters, girlfriends—must be pushed to the side. As he says to himself every morning after showering, popping a pill, and rehydrating his bloodshot eyes, “It’s showtime!”
Copyright ©2014 James Kendrick
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Overall Rating: (4)
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