Twentieth Century Fox was enjoying a run of critical successes in the late 70s.With titles like Breaking Away, Norma Rae, An Unmarried Woman and Julia, the strobing-lights studio had recaptured some of the glory it hadn’t truly seen since the Daryl Zanuck days. And now it had decided to close out the decade with All That Jazz, Bob Fosse’s semi-autobiography (although I’d argue that it’s far more than “semi”) about a director/choreographer at the end of his rope, and his life. Told in a stream-of-consciousness style, it exposes his womanizing, drug addiction and workaholism as a heart attack, and the angel of death, forces him to confront his final-act demons. Not exactly The Doris Day Show.
But it gleaned mostly positive reviews, and even legendary director Stanley Kubrick has been quoted as calling it the best movie he’d ever seen. And truth be told, he wasn’t too far off the mark – Jazz is actually quite close to being a masterpiece. Sure, some complained of its reminiscence of 8 ½, but that’s sort of like saying Peter Bogdonovich’s What’s Up Doc is just Bringing Up Baby, or that Fatal Attraction is just Play Misty for Me. Or that anything by DePalma is just Hitchcock – just because it’s based on a pre-existing form doesn’t mean it can’t he as good. (It might even be, gasp, better!) All that Jazz doesn’t necessary best Fellini’s masterpiece, but nor is it trying to. In many ways Jazz is darker, more disturbing and sadder, yet filled with some of the most invigorating, original musical numbers I’ve ever seen in film. I’m not surprised Kubrick liked it so much: it holds a generally negative view of human nature yet stands as a beautiful work of art in its own right.
Fosse was burning the candle at both ends in 1974, during his simultaneous editing of Lenny and staging of the Broadway musical Chicago – the harried period depicted in Jazz as Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) shuttles between the editing room and theater stage. Our opening number, “On Broadway,” sets up the auditions for the show, and sets up Gideon’s character: an accomplished choreographer who takes his work very, very seriously – almost to a fault. His love for the dance, and for the women who practice it, has cost him a marriage (to dancer Audrey Paris), and very nearly his current relationship to another dancer, Katie Jagger (Ann Reinking). The problem is, Joe knows how badly he’s managed his life, and he copes with this awareness through myriad of pharmaceuticals, and the hope that someday, perhaps, his work will be good enough. But it never seems to be “good enough.” His only happiness seems to come from his daughter, a dancer as well – and their scenes together are a solace from the turmoil of his personal and professional life.
With mounting pressure from neck-breathing investors, coupled with his not-entirely healthy lifestyle, Joe is admitted into a hospital after suffering a heart attack.
With a prescient knowledge of his impending fate he imagines a conversation with the Angel of Death (Jessica Lange), and fixates on one portion of his film – the comedian’s routine on the Five Stages of Death – as it pertains to the stages he is currently undergoing. As he goes under the knife for open heart surgery, his investors heartlessly consider their profit margins if Joe were to die and they could write the entire show off. He does, but not before he imagines a grand finale to beat the bank: the musical extravaganza “Bye, Bye Life” (variant of “Bye, Bye Love”) with all the loved ones in his life, and co-starring Ben Vereen. The final shot of Joe being zipped up in a body bag gives us the final, disturbing image, as Ethel Merman sings “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” revealing Joe (and Fosse’s) love/hate feelings about his profession, and about his life.
All That Jazz is such a dizzying, emotional rollercoaster ride of a movie that it’s hard to know where to start, except to say that you won’t soon forget it after seeing it. With a razor-sharp, lightening-paced script by Fosse and Robert Alan Aurthor (who died before the film’s release), it puts the viewer to work, shuttling from one musing to another as we must sort out Joe’s inner musings, which follow no particular order. The lynchpin of the whole things is how smart Joe is – so smart that he’s all too aware of how demanding and overbearing he can be. One marvelous scene involves a dance recital with ex-wife: he instructs her movements while she casually discusses his marital misdeeds, which he somewhat rationalizes but never denies. But he may very well be the hardest, and most observant, about himself – no, he harbors no pie-in-the-sky ideal that he can change, even were he to survive his heart attack. “If I don’t make it,” he says to her, “I’m sorry for all the things I’ve done. And if I don’t make it, I’m sorry for all the things I’m gonna do.”
And then there are the dance numbers. They’re phenomenal, particularly he opener and closer, and given added weight for their context. The dancing in Jazz is elegant yet urgent – the dancers dance because, to paraphrase George Ballanchine, they have to dance, and in Joe’s case quite literally so. Ann Reinking, as Joe’s girl, is pitch perfect in her first film role: wide-eyed, foolishly devoted yet made more mature during her experience. My favorite of her numbers – a three-girl routine (with ex-wife and daughter, all the women of his life) in which they say “goodbye,” lamenting that he’s leaving a daughter fatherless owing to his reckless, heedless lifestyle. Again, no apologies, just full transparency, Fosse style.
I don’t really identify with the theater life, certainly not as hardcore as is represented in this movie, but I can identify with Joe’s addictive tendencies and his professional perfectionism. Perhaps it’s this absolutism that makes him a bit rough around the edges, but he’s still a likeable protagonist, despite all his flaws. This is crucial, since we need to care – it’s what the entire movie is anchored on. He represents us, the worst of us, a side we may not wish to acknowledge but must at some point in our lives, before it’s too late. In Joe’s case, he just makes it.
And how can I leave without mentioning Scheider in the lead role as Joe – a smart actor playing a smart character. I don’t know much about Fosse but I’ve the feeling Scheider captures him – every aspect and nuance – down to a T. The way a cigarette is always dangling out of his mouth; the way he exasperatingly rolls his eyes at those editing sessions, fully expecting his film to bomb; the way he tells a chorus dancer he didn’t get the part, with equal parts compassion and tough love. It all feels perfect to me, and I’d be willing to bet that no director in American movies had a better onscreen portrayer than Fosse had with Scheider. He’s just that goddamned good.
Jazz is a musical for the ages, but it is an unsparing one. And Fosse is unsparing of himself, confessing, revealing everything as if it were his penance. He would go on to direct one more film, 1983’s Star 80 (another ill-fated subject), before succumbing, as he predicted, to a heart attack in Washington D.C. in 1987. But Jazz, for me, is his swan song – a fitting coda to a legendary, underrated career.
And P.S…. Only ONE movie left to cover 1980 – 1985. Are they kidding me???