All That Jazz (1979)
Directed by: Bob Fosse.
Written by: Robert Alan Aurthur & Bob Fosse.
Starring: Roy Scheider (Joseph "Joe" Gideon), Jessica Lange (Angelique), Leland Palmer (Audrey Paris), Ann Reinking (Katie Jagger), Cliff Gorman (Davis Newman), Ben Vereen (O'Connor Flood), Erzsébet Földi (Michelle Gideon), Michael Tolan (Dr. Ballinger), Max Wright (Joshua Penn), William LeMassena (Jonesy Hecht), Deborah Geffner (Victoria Porter), John Lithgow (Lucas Sergeant), Jules Fisher (Jules), Chris Chase (Leslie Perry).
The phrase “vanity project” gets tossed around a lot about movie star vehicles or self-indulgent directorial efforts in which artists do little more than navel gazing. And yet, when done right, vanity projects can be masterpieces – as evidenced by Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz. Fosse, the infamous choreographer turned director on stage and screen, takes Fellini’s autobiographical 8 ½ (another vanity project, that one about a director making a vanity project), as his model, and makes a film about a Bob Fosse-like director who is both a towering genius and – this is key – a towering asshole. Perhaps that is what separates All That Jazz (and 8 ½, and hell, Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, made around the same time, also inspired by Fellini’s masterpiece) – that while the artist cannot help but call himself a genius, he is also more than willing to admit his failings. All That Jazz is the rarest of things – a musical about death that is both entertaining as hell, and a deeply artistic exploration of its creator.
In the film, Roy Scheider stars as Joe Gideon – who in the film is in the process of editing his latest film – clearly inspired by Fosse’s Lenny – and choreographing and directing a new show on Broadway. He smokes constantly – even in the shower – and is on a steady diet of Dexedrine and alcohol. He runs from one work place to the next, constantly either dodging, or reassuring, a series of moneymen, producers, dancers etc. He has an ex-wife (Leland Palmer), a current girlfriend (Ann Reinking) – and a series of one night (or slightly longer) stands that float in and out of his bed. He has a daughter who he loves, but cannot help but be constantly letting down. He doesn’t want to die, but knows that everything he’s doing will lead him to an early grave anyway – as he is literally flirting with Death (Jessica Lange).
All That Jazz is a film that works on multiple levels. As a musical, the film is a masterpiece – starting with the opening musical number, an audition sequence so precisely choreographed and edited, that it makes a staple in these types of films feel new. Then there a dance set piece in the middle – one for his new play, which stars off exuberantly, and turns almost into dance as sex – which is even better. There are numerous other set pieces along the way – but the one that will be remembered is the finale – an exuberant death knell, with Ben Vereen, that really is one of the best musical numbers in screen history. Fosse was a perfectionist, and you can see it in every frame of the dance sequences – which are a masterclass in editing, which is precisely timed with the movement of the dancers. On a purely technical level, All That Jazz is one of the greatest musicals ever made.
But, of course, there is more to the film than that. This really is a deeply personal film, made by a man who understood his weaknesses enough to know that he was never going to overcome them. The heart attack Fosse suffered while editing Lenny and preparing Chicago for the stage 5 years before he made All That Jazz didn’t kill him – as it ultimately does in All That Jazz – but his demons would eventually catch up with him (he died when he was only 60). According to the movie, if you were unfortunate enough to love Bob Fosse, you would get more than your share of disappointment and pain for your efforts.
And yet, dammit, you still like Joe Gideon in the film. A lot of that is because of Roy Scheider’s performance in the role – an unlikely choice (originally Richard Dreyfuss was cast, but walked away, thinking Fosse couldn’t pull it off – and the studio wanted someone more famous, like Warren Beatty). Scheider is wiry and thin in the film – and dancer’s body – and he exudes the charm that someone like he would need to inspire so many people to put him with an asshole like him. He has a sly, devilish grin that he can pull out around anyone. It’s only by himself – he morning routine in the shower, listening to Vivaldi, before proclaiming, with increasing sadness throughout the film “It’s ShowTime” to an empty room – where Joe seems to not be on. He realizes all the things he’s messing up – realizing that he isn’t a good enough dad, husband, hell person – but he cannot stop it. This is Scheider’s best performance – and really one of the best ever in a musical.
That’s what gives that final musical number added resonance. It is exuberant and joyful, even as it is explicitly about his upcoming death. For Fosse and Gideon, he has to give you a show – some entertainment – no matter what, and he goes out doing just that. Yet, remember the final image of All That Jazz – after the music ends, and it’s just Scheider by himself, alone, quiet, dead – as eventually we all will be.