Our reviews of All That Jazz (1979) (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection (published September 26th, 2014) and All That Jazz: Special Musical Edition (published April 30th, 2007) are also available.
"It's showtime, folks!"—Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider)
Joseph Gideon (Roy Scheider), famous and brilliant choreographer, whittles through a theater full of Broadway hopefuls showing off their dancing and dreaming of fame. Most are rejected, but with the candor of a weathered ace eyeing potential protégés. Occasionally he might pick out a girl to take home for the night. No one questions Joe Gideon in this. After all, he is a genius.
But this is all a performance for Gideon. Offstage, he is burning up. Every morning, he stands in front of the mirror to psych himself up for his next show. He smokes too much (he even forgets to take out his cigarette in the shower), drinks, pops pills, sleeps around. He watches his own life, projected at the moment of his death, like fragments of a theatrical travesty. He comments bitterly on his failures to the Angel of Death herself (Jessica Lange). At Joe Gideon slips away, his restless creativity cannot save him. His frustration and anger and humor cannot save him. For as the song says about being "on Broadway," "The glitter rubs right off—and you're nowhere."
Bob Fosse, one of the modern stage's most volatile personalities, toyed for years with bringing his Broadway triumph, Chicago, to the big screen. Although Rob Marshall eventually managed to create his largely overrated version, cobbling its visual style together out of bits of Bob Fosse's movies (especially Cabaret and All That Jazz), it is easy to see why Fosse could not find a key to pulling the play together for the screen.
Just look at Joe Gideon in All That Jazz. His latest project is a Broadway musical. A shapeless, centerless, shallow Broadway musical. The songs are all flash and no substance. The jokes are inane. And everyone seems to love it.
And Gideon can barely hide his contempt. Confronted with a stupid song about riding in an airplane, he concocts a savage and satirical dance number about sex, pushing it much farther than the "family audience" the producers want to court. He knows it is brilliant, and he knows they will cut it out. Later, at the read-through, he dials down the sound of piggish laughter of the cast and crew until only his own breathing can be heard. The next moment, he awakens in the hospital after a heart attack.
In between his struggles to bring this hollow entertainment to the public, Gideon obsesses over the editing of his latest film, an intimate portrait of a radical stand-up comedian. He tries desperately to have a healthy relationship with his daughter (Erzsebet Foldi), his ex-wife (Leland Palmer), his girlfriend (Ann Reinking), but he has more problems understanding women than a Fellini hero.
All of this is very much like the life of writer/director/choreographer Bob Fosse. He did take the disconnected and shallow Chicago (from which All That Jazz borrows its title) and spun its flax into gold, but he could not find enough substance in the material to go beyond the stage. He did obsess over every frame of his profile of Lenny Bruce (Lenny, just in case you were asking). And he did try to maintain a relationship with his estranged wife Gwen Verdon, while having an affair with Ann Reinking. And a few years after creating All That Jazz (and the uneven Star 80), he died of a heart attack brought on by his years of self-destructive behavior.
So is that all there is to All That Jazz? Is it merely a roman à clef in which Bob Fosse picks over his own life and predicts his own death? Hardly. The film explores how we are burdened with memory, cataloging our good works and our sins as we create our own personal apocalypses. It explores desire, how our craving to fill what we lack is channeled into art. It explores the nature of performance: why do we play out our individual roles, and what masks do we wear for one another? And if it is true that all art aspires to the condition of music, as critic Walter Pater suggested, than All That Jazz is about the dance of life and death, our desire to court both immortality and mortality at once.
But All That Jazz is also a musical, deeply tragic and bitterly funny, a celebration of art and the creative process. As much as Fosse wants us to pity the tortured soul of Joe Gideon and to admire the way he tolerates fools, he also wants us to laugh at Gideon's own foolishness. This makes the Gideon role remarkably difficult to play. No wonder Richard Dreyfuss walked away from the film during rehearsals, leaving the character to his friend Roy Scheider.
The switch paid off. Joe Gideon is probably Roy Scheider's finest performance. He channels all of Fosse's genius and flaws, without sentiment or pity. Scheider is riveting throughout, hitting each note perfectly. The thin sheen of sweat, the slight jitter of his hands—his Joe Gideon is a man always on the verge of exploding, who can take that energy and channel it creatively—when he is not turning it inward and torturing himself. And arguably, this is the very condition of being Bob Fosse.
Of course, one might say that it takes an enormous ego to be so candid on screen, where Fosse ultimately has complete control over his doppelganger. But Fosse can back that ego up with every frame of this film. Every scene charges ahead like it has taken a handful of pills itself and is about to climb up on a tabletop and start dancing. And Alan Heim earns that Oscar for Best Editing, as he pares every scene with complete precision, generating rhythm through the pace of the shots. If one of the themes of Fosse's film is how the artist comes to grips with the possibility (or failure) of his own quest for immortality, then All That Jazz clinches it for Fosse: there are enough memorable moments and images in the film that it holds up well years after its creator's death. Indeed, if All That Jazz has a noticeable flaw (assuming you do not already find Bob Fosse's ego a problem), it is that the visual style sometimes threatens to overwhelm the coherence of the story. It is easy to get disoriented from scene to scene if you are not paying close attention, especially given that most of the film is told in surreal flashbacks (like a Dennis Potter story) from Gideon's deathbed.
Given the sudden renewal in interest about Fosse's work, with the advent of the imitative Chicago, you would think that Fox would put forth more effort with this DVD release. But the print is a bit soft, and the soundtrack is presented only in pretty ordinary 2.0 mix. Shouldn't a musical have a better audio track? The extras are also a mixed bag. Roy Scheider provides a "scene specific" commentary track, which means he only talks intermittently and leaves long stretches of silence. When he does talk, he does have some interesting (if often scripted) things to say about Fosse's working methods and personal habits (including what Scheider claims was a frequent drug-fueled stupor that the actor tried to imitate on screen). Fosse does not seem so out of sorts during the brief set of clips included on the disc, in which we see various scenes of Fosse directing the "cattle call" sequence at the beginning of the film. It is interesting how much work goes into creating the impression of a spontaneous performance, and it makes us long to see more of the master at work. But the only other extras are a set of very short interview clips (about three minutes total) of Scheider on set, giving fluffy answers designed for studio promotion, and a trailer that makes the film look surprisingly upbeat.
In truth, All That Jazz is not a particularly upbeat film. Its celebratory moments, mostly captured in dance, are always tinged with irony. But it is also not a bleak film. Gideon may be dying, but Death is just another woman for him to seduce, another addiction to sate. So can we really say that, underneath it all, the seemingly self-loathing and frustrated Joe Gideon is really unhappy?
No matter. All That Jazz invites its audience to debate that question even as we enjoy the striking visual moments Fosse creates on screen. This is a musical for people who distrust the idyllic world of musicals and an exploration of the creative process for anyone who has ever wondered what it costs to be a genius. In All That Jazz, Bob Fosse has choreographed a film with the psychological complexity (and solipsism) of Fellini, the audacity (and cynicism) of Stanley Kubrick, and the rhythm and verve of—well, of Bob Fosse.
Court is in recess while we all go take in a show. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Roy Scheider
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