"It's showtime, folks"—and Judge Bill Gibron can't wait to line up for another showing of this spectacular 1979 masterpiece by one of the greatest artists in theater and film.
Our reviews of All That Jazz (published September 15th, 2003) and All That Jazz (1979) (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection (published September 26th, 2014) are also available.
All that work. All that glitter. All that pain. All that love. All that crazy rhythm. All that jazz.
In a year that saw such stellar cinematic statements as Apocalypse Now, Breaking Away, Manhattan, and Being There, one film more than any other stood out. It was deeply personal and highly controversial, a look behind the scenes at the production of a major Broadway musical and a sly deconstruction of one man's fragile psyche. It functioned as both an attack on show business phoniness and an open apology to the numerous people its creator cared about and eventually hurt. There were even elements in it so insular as to appear obtuse. But mostly, it was a commemoration of a career in dance, one man's inner journey through a life lived in choreographing humans to music. For Bob Fosse, All That Jazz was an experimental mea culpa. Today it remains a self-indulgent celebration, an attempt to atone locked within a clear exploration of the standard tortured artist effect. Representing only one of five feature films the noted stage director would helm during his career, it felt like a lifetime of legitimate gripes ground up into a Fellini-esque frappe. It promoted his presence as a serious creator. It also indicated the upcoming arrival of Fosse's own untimely death at 60. The movie is now out as All That Jazz: Special Musical Edition.
Facts of the Case
For famous Broadway choreographer and director Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider, Jaws), life has become way too complex and emotionally cold. Everyday, he wakes up to a ritual of pills, antacids, and eye drops, the lack of sleep and constant pain in his chest reminding him that stress is just as deadly as any drug or decadence. His love life is rotten, with both ex-wife Audrey Paris (Leland Palmer) and current girlfriend Kate Jagger (Anne Reinking, Annie) vying for his attention. Audrey wants Joe to spend more time with his daughter. Kate wants him to spend less time with his showgirl one-night stands. But Joe keeps plugging along, trying to make sense out of the latest project he's been assigned to. The lame excuse for a musical, featuring cheesy songs and a disastrous book, is proving impossible to guide. Joe is fresh out of ideas, yet he feels an overwhelming pressure to perform. A sudden heart attack threatens to cancel the production, putting Joe in the hospital for some necessary surgery. It's clear that if he doesn't stop smoking, drinking, doping, carousing—All That Jazz—Joe won't live to see another day, yet alone another opening of another show.
For a movie about redemption, Bob Fosse's All That Jazz has got a lot of nerve. After all, how else would you describe a movie that proposes to argue the value of talent over fidelity, commitment, love, honor, duty, or even common decency? Better still, how do you defend a film that wants us to appreciate the lecherous lunatic that sits at the center of this story, a man of obvious ability that more or less marginalized everyone else around him. It's a move of such obvious self-deprecating crassness that one should run shrieking from the theater, as if the star himself wants to walk you thought his various flaws just so you can turn around and call him a god. A great deal of All That Jazz plays like Fosse's personal plea for acceptance and forgiveness. It's also a way of showing everyone who ever doubted him that he is better, smarter, more talented, and more important that anyone else in show business. It was a brazen statement in 1979, a time when no one tried tooting their own horn. Today, it seems slightly shocking, but fits quite well within the current YouTubing of the populace. Back then, artists had to stand up for themselves, even if it was in a sordid show-business backstage (and biting) musical dramedy. Today, just fire up the Web cam and you can tell the multitude just how fabulous you really are.
In many ways, this is a motion-picture purgative for Fosse. He's not only attempting to atone for how badly he treated the people in his life, but he also wants a little metaphysical payback for the creative issues that hounded his later years. For one, he seems to have some issues left over from directing the 1972 show Pippin. The musical number featured in the film—the smarmy and smug "Take Off With Us"—is highly reminiscent of that show's opening song, "Magic to Do." There's even a similar lyric ("Join Us" vs. "Take Off With Us") to make the match complete. What we learn is that Fosse apparently feuded with the creative forces behind the show, individuals who questioned his choice of cast, dancers, and direction. In the film, this pack of producers is portrayed as braying, yellow-teethed morons who speak in a kind of sly salesman slang. Everything they say is tied directly to the bottom line, not artistic or creative conceits. Fosse even goes so low as to question their sexuality, dropping little hints of homosexual longings in several scenes. While he also takes himself to task for being overpowering and blunt, he definitely wants someone in his Pippin past to pay a price. There is also a nod to his other '70s success, Chicago. Aside from the film's title (taken from the opening song), it is rumored that the "Air-rotica" sequence in Jazz is a direct lift from an idea he had for a similarly styled courthouse orgy for said show's "Razzle Dazzle" number.
Then, there's Lenny. Remember, Fosse only made five films, so each one must have been very special for him. With an Oscar in his pocket post-Cabaret and the desire to adapt Julian Barry's play about the doomed comic for the silver screen, the maverick developed his game plan. He wanted a big budget to realize his vision. The studio said no. He wanted to cast stage star Cliff Gorman for the lead. Again, the suits negated his choice and literally thrust Dustin Hoffman on him. Finally, as illustrated very sharply in Jazz, he was hounded for weeks as he tried to work the final film into some manner of sensible shape. He also suffered his first major heart issue during this time. In the film, you can clearly see how taxing the entire Lenny situation was to Fosse. Gideon is seen worrying and working on his film nonstop (it's called The Stand Up here) and there are times when it looks like interference and fatigue will derail the post-production. Some may view these moments as indicative of a workaholic desire to spread oneself too thin, but that's not really fair to Fosse. In a business as tenuous as the theater, where you're only as good as your last notices, you need to have that next job lined up. It was a mantra for the man, and explains why he was so driven—and why he died so early. The Stand Up episodes are both a plea for clemency and a recognition of his own self-indulgence. He wanted Lenny to work, but forces both inside and outside the process conspired against him.
Finally, we can't avoid the arch attitude toward sex. One of Fosse's most famous films, the tragic tale of murdered Playboy playmate Dorothy Stratton, Star 80, was the man's final word on how the media processes physicality to fit a seedy, almost smutty paradigm. In All That Jazz, Fosse shows diddling as an extension of dance. Both involve the body in ways that most people don't normally use them, and both are an expression of inner desire in a completely outer manner. That's why the "Air-Rotica" sequence is so strong. It boils down the facelessness of fornication into a statement of implied emotional withdrawal. It also suggests that nothing is more startling, stunning, and sublime than the well-honed human figure in motion. Similarly, the moments where Gideon is confronted with his many infidelities are always played for laughs. It's as if the ladies in his life—including his baby-brother wanting daughter—forgive the man his many transgressions as a matter of bodily business as usual. They don't like the lack of commitment and relationships overloaded with lies, but even when Leland Palmer's Audrey takes him to task, she has to laugh at his clueless swagger and sense of entitlement. Again, we are supposed to root for this character, yet he's constantly corrupting our vision with bitterness and a rather loose sense of personal ethics.
But none of this can deny the impact of Fosse's work on film. The dance sequences in All That Jazz are simply stunning, the highest level of choreography expertly captured and filtered through the many facets of the medium. Clearly a post-modern update of the standard song-and-dance musical, All That Jazz presents scenes where we see rehearsals and death-dream inspired shuffles that have a clear kinetic energy which comes from a combination of movement, direction, and editing. With the way he cuts to the beat and always finds the perfect shot to suggest the stance, no one in recent Hollywood history had a better eye for bringing the dancer's body to the screen than Fosse. In fact, it's almost surreal the way Fosse shoots certain images. When Anne Reinking is dancing with Erzsebet Foldi (as Joe Gideon's daughter) to the song "Everything Old is New Again," her exceptionally long legs and performer's physique look almost alien. It's also a testament to Fosse's ability as a filmmaker that he can easily incorporate a non-musical talent like Roy Scheider (who replaced Richard Dreyfuss early on) into what is basically a who's who of theatrical talent. He can even makes the indulgent fantasy sequences with the Angel of Death (in the persona of Jessica Lange) complementary to the reality-based material at hand. Some may consider his Academy Award for Cabaret to be a bandwagon-oriented fluke, but with All That Jazz, Fosse definitely earned the title of "auteur."
In the end, it's a clear combination of things—a desire for personal examination, a need for some unbecoming retribution, a cast overflowing with three-dimensional depth, an amazing collection of musical sequences, a satiric tone towards one's own life, a keen eye for what's in front of the camera, and some subtextual showboating and self-congratulation—that make All That Jazz a masterpiece. The movie flows to the rhythms of its creator, starting and stopping to expose a fault or fix a practical problem. It functions as a primer and a portfolio of one man's entire creative output, utilizing every trick of motion-picture prestidigitation to expand the true language of film. Some may argue that its ego more than insight that drives this production, that Fellini did it first and much better when he brought 8 ½ to the screen a decade and a half before. Thanks to all the posthumous praise Fosse has received, worship untainted by his own streak of self-destruction, many may complain that the movie is too hard on him. But if anyone understood his own vices and vileness best, it was Bob Fosse. After an initial brush with death, he took stock of his scattered life—and All That Jazz was the result of said enlightenment. How sad for him. How good for us.
After being MIA on DVD for many years, All That Jazz finally came out in a decent digital version of the title in 2003. The disc contained an excellent picture, good sound, and a less-than-impressive collection of extras. Primary among them were a scene-specific commentary from Roy Scheider (unexceptional and overloaded with dead air), a collection of interviews with the actor (EPK-ish at best), and five Bob Fosse clips (directing the brilliant "On Broadway" sequence that starts the film). This new version improves on some things, while avoiding being a true celebration of such a monumental motion-picture achievement. The difference between the transfers is rather subliminal. This new DVD looks better than the old, the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen print appearing clearer and more colorful than before. The softness that plagued the first release isn't obvious here. Then there's the sound. This latest disc is a significant improvement over the old in that the standard Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix has been supplemented by a remastered 5.1 Surround take on the soundtrack. The difference is only really discernible during the musical numbers, but the channels get a nice workout when it occurs.
As for extras, nothing from the original DVD is present here. Scheider is nowhere to be found, and neither are many of the cast and crew. Instead, we get an odd set of featurettes in which various artists and musicians discuss Fosse and his film. A good example of how weird this added content is arrives in the "Perverting the Standards" section. Believe it or not Devo (Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale) are part of the discussion, talking about their admiration for the man. Similarly, some theatrical names not even associated with the film show up to praise Fosse in "Portrait of a Choreographer." And you'll really hate George Benson after his appearance in the "Making of the Song 'On Broadway'" section. No, he's nothing but smiles and accolades, but the man is 64—and he looks 44, dammit! There's also a menu option to view only the musical numbers and a chance to sing along, "movie-oke" style, with that earnest earworm "Take Off With Us." Perhaps the best bonus here is an audio commentary from long-time Fosse editor Alan Heim. Laidback and very soft spoken, he provides some very interesting insights into how Fosse worked (he was not as driven as the Gideon character in the film) and walks us through the cutting room process. Though he frequently drifts out to merely watch the film (Heim won an Oscar for his efforts), the information he provides is invaluable. He allows us into Fosse's process without sounding scholarly or stilted.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Calling Criterion! Calling Criterion! Pony up the bucks that Fox is looking for to handle this title and pay them. Fans need a fully fleshed-out version of this important film, and the brains over at 20th Century haven't gotten it right yet. And they've tried twice!
Somehow, All That Jazz has suffered in its appreciation over the years. It wasn't the biggest hit of 1979, and when scholars look at the important movies from that time, it barely gets a mention. It's obvious that the two decades since his death have been ephemerally beneficial to Fosse. He's no longer around to mismanage his mythos, leaving a body of work and the occasional retrospective of film clips to fill in the blanks. As a result, he's become less of a man and more of an idol, a symbol for how the musical shifted from a simple song-and-dance fest into complimentary components of movement and meaning. But there actually was a Bob Fosse, a man who abused himself via all manner of personal and professional sins, who belittled people and cheated on his companions with startling regularity. He got angry at backers and pissed off more than a few of his fellow stage and film peers with an arrogance that bordered on insanity. But he also created some of the most amazing choreography and dance moves ever envisioned by an artiste. You don't win several Tonys, an Oscar, an Emmy, and the Palme D'Or at Cannes by being a slouch (by the way, that last nod was for All That Jazz), and even with his wild, wicked, and frequently worthless ways, Fosse remains a visible theatrical force. Someone had to celebrate such a triumph. And apparently only he could do himself justice.
Not guilty. While Fox fumbles the digital ball a bit with this release, there is no denying the brilliance inherent in this movie and in Bob Fosse himself. Case closed.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Film Editor Alan Heim
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