Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz is a truly original and daring musical, if you can call it that. You can also call it a brutally honest autobiography, a tongue-in-cheek celebration of the art of dying, a frank dissection of an artist’s core existential dilemma or simply a last-second, desperate cry for help.
No matter how you look at it, it is hard to deny its broad ambition and originality. Sure, it borrows a lot thematically from Fellini’s 8 and a half, but every auto-biographical movie about an artist’s inner struggle to truly create an original piece of art owes a lot to that widely accepted masterpiece.
What makes All That Jazz almost as special as Fellini’s confessional is how personal Fosse was willing to get when it came to his life and creativity without a hint of ego-petting and condescension, just like Fellini was. Yet what separates them is the complete lack of nostalgia and romanticism with which Fosse approaches his avatar Joe Gideon, played by Roy Scheider in perhaps his finest performance.
Even though he cheats on his wife and is somewhat narcissistic, we still like Guido in 8 and a half. Gideon, on the other hand, is manipulative, callous, irresponsible, compulsive and self-centered. He is divorced from a woman he still loves because he cheated every chance he got, he is an absentee father to his daughter and buries himself in his work in order to cover up the fact that he has a pretty horrid personality.
The film begins with a montage of Joe going through his morning routine and saying “Showtime” in front of the mirror. Fosse immediately establishes the fact that to Joe and to partly himself, his own life is the same as one of his shows and therefore he can be distant to anyone in his world.
After the beginning, we cut to one of the most impressive montages in musical history, as Joe auditions for his new show while George Benson’s “On Broadway” plays in its entirety. A song about a struggling artist trying to crawl his way to the top of the Broadway marquees, it’s a perfect match for the fast-paced and disorienting montage depicting literally hundreds of dancers slowly weened down to a few.
The first half of the film is a very strong and honest biopic. We see Gideon’s self-destructive personal life as he prepares for his new play. The relationship with his ex-wife that will never be the same. His struggle to reconnect with his daughter while allowing no time for her to get to know him beyond the fun, entertaining daddy figure. Trying to set his current relationship with a beautiful dancer straight while still incessantly womanizing.
Meanwhile, he suffers a creative block and tries to remedy it by working himself to exhaustion. He keeps cutting and re-cutting a comedic bit about the five stages of death for his film about a stand-up comedian (No doubt modeled after Fosse’s biography of Lenny Bruce). Helpless about injecting some originality to the play, he adds a pornographic number full of nudity and simulated sex (“We just lost the family audience” a producer quips).
Fosse inter-cuts these scenes with curios short sequences that might take place in Gideon’s mind or in some kind of metaphysical realm, where he and a mysterious angelic woman (Who is not so curiously names Angelique, played by Jessica Lange) discuss his life like part confession and part therapy. Lange’s character in this film is obviously inspired by Guido’s muse in 8 and a half, played by Claudia Cardinale.
As opposed to the beatific nature of the muse, there is something deeply sinister about Lange’s character. We get many clues throughout that she represents death, and the final scene pretty much spells it out, but I think she represents the true form of real art that Gideon tries to reach, until he realizes that the only true reality is death itself.
After Gideon is admitted to the hospital for exhaustion, the movie takes a bizarre turn and becomes a surreal dark comedy-musical, like a version of Chicago for hypochondriac philosophers. During his surgeries, Gideon fantasizes his family exposing their bitterness and saying their goodbyes to him in lavish musical form. The man whose entire life is consumed by musicals experiences a death that becomes his ultimate show. I wonder how Fosse’s actual death transpired through his mind 8 years after he made All That Jazz?
The final musical scene with Broadway legend Ben Vereen and Joe singing a version of Bye Bye Love called Bye Bye Life is what it’s supposed to be: A showstopper. After all, it is the ultimate climax of any human being, the moment of death.
It is an equally wondrous and bizarre sequence, with every single person from Joe’s life there to bid their farewells around an intentionally gaudy stage surrounded by backup dancers dressed in veiny, flesh-colored spandex. It’s one of the most bizarre yet strangely touching scenes I’ve ever seen.
Even though it doesn’t get nearly it’s deserved credit, even among Fosse’s own work, I think All That Jazz is the darker, more emotionally damaged step-brother of 8 and a half.