All That Jazz (1979)
“All that work. All that glitter. All that pain. All that love. All that crazy rhythm. All that jazz.”
Director: Bob Fosse
Cast: Roy Scheider, Jessica Lange, Leland Palmer
Synopsis: Director/choreographer Bob Fosse tells his own life story as he details the sordid life of Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider), a womanizing, drug-using dancer.
I’m not a big fan of musicals. The plots of those movies in which characters spontaneously burst into song and/or dance for no apparent reason while accompanied by an invisible orchestra, are so lame that they might as well dispense with their story-lines altogether and just show all the musical numbers as one long compilation; that’s all most fans of those sort of movies want to see, anyway. Movies in which the music is incorporated into a plot (e.g. the putting on of a show) aren’t quite as unbearable, depending on when they were made (although the thought of sitting through a bloated monstrosity like A Chorus Line once again makes me shudder with dread). Bob Fosse’s semi-autobiographical All That Jazz sort of straddles both sub-genres, although it’s much more than just another run-of-the-mill musical, and almost deserves a sub-genre all of its own. But Fosse’s innovative style yields only mixed results. When All That Jazz works it works wonderfully well, but when it doesn’t it comes across as an over-long and self-indulgent vanity project.
Roy Scheider, giving probably the best performance of his career, plays Fosse’s alter-ego Joe Gideon, a self-destructive, workaholic choreographer and movie director. Gideon’s a charismatic character, but his habit of perpetually wearing black, and that ever-so-artsy goatee beard he wears, hint at affectation, a conscious attempt to be unconventional. When we meet Gideon he’s pushing himself to the limit producing a Broadway show while also editing a movie about a stand-up comedian (in 1975, Fosse was staging the Broadway musical Chicago while editing Lenny, his movie about the satirical stand-up comedian, Lenny Bruce). To maintain this hectic lifestyle, Gideon chain-smokes cigarettes, drinks copious amounts of alcohol and takes Dexedrine the way you and I would eat Smarties. What he never seems to do is eat, however, and the movie’s surreal opening, in which he converses with an angel-like figure named Angelique (Jessica Lange), suggests that the way he leads his life is putting it in danger.
But Gideon’s too busy to worry about that. Not only has he got the movie and the stage show to produce, he’s also got dancers to screw, a precocious daughter to bring up with his estranged wife, Audrey Paris (Leland Palmer), a girlfriend (Ann Reinking) from whom he must hide all those dancers, and financial backers who are fretting over the way the steaminess of some of his numbers won’t win over the family audiences they’re hoping to draw in. Inevitably, it’s not long before something has to give, and when the pressure finally gets too much, Gideon finds himself confined to a hospital bed, facing heart surgery and the reality of his own mortality.
A movie in which the film-maker essentially spends two hours telling us all about himself inevitably leaves itself wide open to accusations of self-indulgence, but do those accusations hold true when the film-maker shows us what an unmitigated jerk he’s been? Neglectful father, unfaithful husband, unfaithful lover, selfish hedonist, demanding workaholic – Fosse seems to be holding his hands up to all of these things, which might permit his audience to cut him some slack. And yet, All That Jazz feels less like an act of atonement and more a regretful celebration on the part of Fosse, as if, while admitting his many failings he seeks to excuse them all by pointing at his inarguable talent. In that respect the movie is a perfect reflection of the man himself, explaining how people who were well aware of Gideon/Fosse’s many flaws allowed themselves to be seduced by his larger than life personality. Either way, perhaps the most telling aspect of All That Jazz is that, consciously or not, Joe Gideon acknowledges his flaws but chooses to do nothing about them.
The film’s energy is irresistible, thanks largely to Alan Heim’s Oscar-winning editing, which pretty much transformed the way that screen musicals were brought to the screen. Apparently the dance routines, if you’re a professional dancer, are something to behold as well, although speaking as someone who has never worn a legging in their life, I have to say that the staged dances were the dullest part of All That Jazz for me. The highly rated ‘Take Off With Us’ routine in particular was pretentious (and is now badly dated), while the concluding Bye Bye Life sequence, while imaginatively staged and enthusiastically performed, just seems to go one for ever.
Scheider holds it all together with sublime artistry, capturing the drive and energy of a virtuoso incapable of living his life on anything but his own terms, even when he knows that those terms will eventually kill him. All the other characters are mere satellites orbiting around him. The lives of the women seem defined by their relationship with Gideon, while his adversaries are pale, ineffectual foes. That’s the problem when people write about themselves – all other characters become mere bit players in the story, with little influence or colour.
Although All That Jazz isn’t really my type of movie, I’d recommend it simply for the fact that it has a unique perspective on life and death that adroitly sidesteps morbidity, and is one of those rarest of things – a musical with cojones.
(Reviewed 3rd December 2013)
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