ALL THAT JAZZ (1979)

  • Director: Bob Fosse           
  • Writers: Robert Alan Aurthur and Bob Fosse
  • Starring: Roy Scheider, Jessica Lange, Ann Reinking, Leland Palmer, Cliff Gorman, Ben Vereen, Erzsébet Földi, David Margulies, Deborah Geffner, and John Lithgow
  • Accolades: 4 Oscars (Best Original Song Score, Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction, Best Costumes), 5 additional Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director – Bob Fosse, Best Actor – Roy Scheider, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography)
  • Where to Watch: Currently available to stream on YouTube

It’s probably a stretch to call All That Jazz a “great movie,” but I find myself completely fascinated by it. Among my fun new discoveries in the course of watching movies for this site, there are the “I can’t believe this exists” movies and the “this movie is so good, how come I haven’t heard more about this before?” movies. All That Jazz certainly falls into the former category primarily, to a degree I found myself completely unprepared for, but it’s not entirely outside the latter category, either. I had always thought of it as a musical, but there’s really just one musical number for the first hour plus of a two hour movie. One review I found referred to the movie as, “One of the most famous choreographers of all time deciding to choreograph his own death.” 

That choreographer was Bob Fosse, who in addition to his great Broadway work had directed a handful of movies, including Cabaret. All That Jazz has been called Fosse’s take on 8 ½, in that it’s a movie about a director directing, in which we cut back and forth between “reality” and that director’s own fantasies, including a focus on his relationships with a string of women that bring out different aspects of his life and personalities. All that is true as far as it goes, but while 8 ½ seems to have been more inspired by Federico Fellini’s own life rather than directly based on it, All That Jazz is so wrapped up in its relationship with Fosse’s own life and the people in it that it starts to eat itself.

Fosse based the story on his experiences simultaneously directing the original run of Chicago for Broadway and cutting together his film Lenny (a biopic of Lenny Bruce in which the comedian is played by Dustin Hoffman). In the movie, these are changed every so slightly to NY/LA and The Stand-Up, respectively, and the Fosse character, played by Roy Scheider, is renamed “Joe Gideon,” but there is never any question what we are talking about. Leland Palmer plays Gideon’s ex-wife and sometime-collaborator, a character very clearly based on Gwen Verdon, while Ann Reinking is basically playing herself as Gideon’s current girlfriend (though, hilariously, Fosse still made her audition). There is another storyline in which Gideon sleeps with a dancer in his upcoming production (Deborah Geffner) while simultaneously berating her during rehearsals for being a terrible dancer until she bursts into tears. This storyline is supposedly based on Gideon’s relationship with Jennifer Nairn-Smith during the production of Pippin, and in fact Nairn-Smith appears in this movie in an entirely different role.

All That Jazz’s point of view on the world is a fundamentally misanthropic one, which is what has turned a significant subset of viewers off over the years. Gideon sees no point in anyone being “faithful” as part of a relationship (when Reinking points out she has never cheated on him, he wonders why he should care about that), and makes no efforts to keep his philandering a secret. More to the point, during the frequent pauses for Gideon to have conversations with the “Angel of Death” (played in a massive white gown by Jessica Lange), he says lots of things like “I said ‘I love you’ many many times, but I hardly ever meant it.” Nothing ever seems to actually make him happy, and he purposefully antagonizes most of the other people in the movie most of the time. 

At one point he stages a preview of a scene from his musical for money-grubbing investors, who are shocked to find the number to be way more sexualized than they anticipated, complete with topless female dancers. “There goes the family audience,” one comments. One gets the sense he does this solely to piss them off. This seems to have been based on reality, too: during rehearsals for Chicago Fosse intended to stage the song “Razzle Dazzle” as an “orgy on the Courthouse steps,” before eventually being convinced by one of the composers that he was “being too literal.”

The most (in)famous part of All That Jazz is probably the finale, when Gideon, crashing after open-heart surgery, hallucinates a massive (and massively 70s) song-and-dance number summarizing his life. If this doesn’t sound so crazy to you, consider that the featured song is “Bye Bye Life,” a Broadway-ized parody of “Bye Bye Love” by the Everly Brothers, with the chorus of “I think I’m gonna die,” being repeated over and over while Gideon says goodbye to various loved ones. As we hear Gideon’s final heartbeats on his heart monitor (to the beat of the song), he drifts way down a hallway into the embrace of Lange’s Angel of Death, while the crowd wildly cheers. I’m going to put that scene here, even though it’s the last of the movie, and also because I think even if you’re not going to watch the movie it’s 100% worth it to understand why the whole thing just left me flabbergasted. I don’t think it’s a spoiler as much as the point of the movie. Brief nudity warning, there are a couple naked ladies shown in the crowd who are call-backs to Gideon getting his start as a tap-dancer in burlesque clubs earlier in the movie.

As Gideon passes from life to the sound of wild cheering and amidst an enormously expensive production number, it’s easy to see where various critics and viewers over the years have gotten the ammunition to call All That Jazz “egotistical,” “wildly self-indulgent,” etc. But I also think it’s relatively reasonable to see why someone like Stanley Kubrick would call this “the most incredible film I’ve ever seen” at the time it came out, despite it not feeling very much at all like a Kubrick movie (or maybe it does somehow? There are a few very Kubrickean shots in that final musical number). I don’t mean I am in love with this thing myself, just to say that I appreciate big swings, and I’m not sure if I’ve seen a crazy swing this big in quite some time. This is the kind of movie that’s super fun to watch for me.

All That Jazz’s crazy experimentation with the form came at a time when movie musicals were very much on their way out of fashion. Ten years earlier or so, the stereotype of an Oscar-bait movie was probably a big, colorful studio musical. After All That Jazz, there wouldn’t be another musical nominated for Best Picture for 12 years (Beauty and the Beast), and there wouldn’t be another live-action musical nominated for 22 years (Moulin Rouge!). I looked up a couple of lists of the Best Movie Musicals of the 1980s and they are pretty bleak (Xanadu and Grease 2 were among the representative titles). I am happy that now musicals seem to be “back,” at least in some sense. In the meantime, that final goodbye extravaganza in All That Jazz might also serve as a semi-appropriate eulogy for an era of on-screen musicals.

3 thoughts on “ALL THAT JAZZ (1979)

  1. So this was another one of Movie Valhalla’s reviews that I saw when it first came out in theaters. I was either 16 or 17 and I have to say that it literally made me sick to my stomach. I think it was the scene when it was wandering around the hospital right before dying. In the years since, I have seen it about a half dozen times and I have enjoyed it more with each viewing. I watched it again last night and that was confirmed. It is an excellent film. With it’s overall theme of death, that is no wonder. After all, what does a 16-year-old know or care about death? But as a 58-year-old who is closer to death that that long ago teen, it holds a lot more fascination. Fosse must have been some of weird genius to be able to make wonderful films about death and Nazis (Cabaret).

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