All That Jazz

  • Title: All That Jazz
  • Director: Bob Fosse
  • Date: 1979
  • Studio: 20th Century Fox and Columbia Pictures
  • Genre: Musical
  • Cast: Roy Scheider, Jessica Lange, Ann Reinking, Leland Palmer, Erzebet Foldt, John Lithgow, Ben Vereen
  • Format: Technicolor, Anamorphic Widescreen
  • DVD Format: R1, NTSC

It’s Showtime!  — Joe Gideon

My second favorite musical (my favorite being Moulin Rouge (2001)). All That Jazz is truly one of those movies that gets better every time you see it, and as Roger Ebert once said — I can’t imagine never being able to see this film again. It’s good — and you notice more each time you see it. Or, at least I noticed more this time, and I’ve seen it half a dozen times.

All That Jazz is a fictional biopic about a choreographer who is falling apart from his excessive lifestyle — too much smoking, too much drinking, too much fooling around with women, and a life of nothing but work are wearing him down to a point of exhaustion. While preparing his new Broadway show, and cutting his film “The Stand-Up”, Joe Gideon’s life spirals out of control. He has an angina attack – and then things get really interesting, before the choreographer choreographs his own death.

But more than that is the way the film uses everything — music, dance, songs, little bits of Joe’s life, and interspersed throughout it all some very strange scenes with Jessica Lange as the Angel of  Death — to tell it’s story, make it a visual masterpiece. I cannot imagine this film in any other format – book, magazine spread, TV series – only the film format works, which is a high compliment to a film and a reason I highly, highly recommend it.

The film also references many other musical films – visually. And not in a “cutsy” way, but if you know the reference it adds to what’s being told and if you don’t – it doesn’t distract from it.  For example, the first fifteen minutes or so are A Chorus Line as Gideon chooses the cast for his new production from an open call (or “cattle call” as they are sometimes known). Then, as Gideon starts to prepare his show – it briefly brings to mind such “show within a show” films as 42nd Street or The Bandwagon.  However, where those films are solely about getting a Broadway production made — and the successful show is the end of the film, in All That Jazz, once Gideon develops an artistically pleasing but very adult production number — the film turns more to his complicated life and quickly to his complicated death. Then, while Gideon’s in hospital, a group of producers are sitting around discussing the life insurance policy on Gideon. Their cold, hard discussion determines that if Joe dies, the insurance pays off, and the show will make a profit — without opening. Remember The Producers?  That’s the original one by Mel Brooks starring Wilder and Mostel. Also, in the handful of quick numbers at the end as Gideon’s hallucinating in the hospital – includes a dance that’s a dead-ringer for a Busby Berkeley musical, including white feathers.

But, the film is NOT a parody of musicals — not by a long shot. It’s about Gideon, a choreographer, and his life, which is spiraling out of control. And despite the way he abuses himself with too much booze, smoking, fooling around, and driving himself at work, Gideon, as a protagonist is a fascinating man. Because we, the audience, don’t hate him. His behavior may at times be despicable – but we don’t hate him. Bit by bit Scheider’s portrayal of Gideon wins the audience over and we come to care about him. Gideon has a pre-teen daughter whom he loves very much. In fact, in my opinion, some of the best scenes in the film are between the two, especially when they are dancing together (he’s helping her with ballet and jazz dancing). His ex-wife, despite having left him because of his numerous affairs – still loves him. And his long-time girl-friend also loves him, and gets along fine with his ex-wife and daughter.  (Told you his life was complicated).

While working on his new production, Gideon has an angina attack. After the initial scare the doctors keep him in the hospital to try to get him to relax and calm down — Gideon, however, fools around, smokes, drinks, throws parties, and has his surgeons convinced he doesn’t care if he lives or dies.  Gradually, through his hallucinations – he comes to realize he wants to live – for his daughter.

However, that isn’t to be and in a final, triumphant number we see the choreography of his death in a duet between Scheider and Ben Vereen — which becomes a major production number.  The first time I saw the film I was confused by the chorus girls in the white stocking outfits with the red and blue lines — the next time I saw it, I realized those were meant to suggest blood vessels.

This time around, I kinda’ wondered if either the suits on the Broadway production, or a conniving fellow director/choreographer (played to the chilling teeth by John Lithgow) actually arranged Gideon’s hospital “accident” that leads ultimately to his death.

Either way — the final production number is outstanding! And the mini-numbers leading up to it, with each of the important people in Gideon’s life trying to convince him to live are also outstanding. Bob Fosse’s direction throughout the film is brilliant, as is his choreography. And yes — the film is said to be a fictionalized version of Fosse’s life. It’s still brilliant.

Roy Scheider is also brilliant in this film – and actually looks his best in the production number at the end, when he’s performing his duet with Vereen. (Yes, he sings, and fairly well.  Not sure if it was dubbed – it doesn’t sound like it, Scheider’s New Jersey accent is still there.) And the dancing in that number is brilliant!

OK – and standard 1970s disclaimer here:  All That Jazz is an adult film with adult concepts, however that means it’s a film adults can enjoy without feeling it’s an insult to their intelligence. There is a lot of sex, smoking, drinking, swearing, drug use, and bare breasts — deal with it. For a film this brilliant, I’m not sweating it.

Recommendation: I highly, highly, highly recommend this film. If you’ve never seen it – rent it, give it a try, maybe even watch it a couple of times – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
Rating: 5 of 5 Stars
Next Film: The Apartment