Year of Release: 1979 Directed by Bob Fosse. Starring Roy Scheider, Jessica Lange, Ann Reinking, Erzsebet Foldi, Leland Palmer, and Deborah Geffner.
“And they’re dread wrong, I know they are/’Cuz I can play this here guitar/and I won’t quit ‘til I’m a star on Broadway.” I remember in an undergrad pop music class analyzing Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil’s song On Broadway, from which those lyrics are taken. The one thing I remember from that discussion was the professor pointing out the irony of immediately following that line with an unremarkable guitar solo, which is quickly swallowed up by the band.
Bob Fosse uses On Broadway for the opening number of his quasi-autobiographical masterpiece All That Jazz. Over the course of the song we watch director Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider in a career best performance) run a grueling day of auditions for his next musical as the mass of starstruck wannabes grows smaller and smaller. It could seem like a cynical song to open a cynical movie, but Fosse’s musical is every bit as much a love letter to the glamorous showbiz life as it is a critique.
On the one hand, All That Jazz is in many ways a seedier and more unflinching version of Fellini’s 8½ with elaborate song and dance numbers. Joe Gideon is a famous director who is facing a midlife crisis, struggling to finish a film that is well behind schedule and over budget, while simultaneously unable to make up his mind how he wants his next Broadway show to go. In the midst of these work conflicts, he recalls his formative experiences working in showbusiness and looks to the various women in his life for inspiration from the ingénue actress he cast in his latest show so he can sleep with her, to his current girlfriend, his ex-wife, his daughter, and his angelic muse.
If this set up sounds like a version of the “sexist man abuses everyone he knows and gets away with it, because he’s a great misunderstood artist” trope, it is because All That Jazz is a sort of confession for Fosse, who himself was a womanizer who abused drugs and alcohol, the same as Joe Gideon. However, Fosse is not interested in absolving Joe (or by extension himself). Indeed, he focuses more on the pain caused to the women by Joe’s selfishness, and the viewer’s sympathy is always with his resigned ex-wife Audrey (Leland Palmer), his heartbroken daughter Michelle (Erzsebet Foldi) who wishes her dad took better care of himself, or his current girlfriend Kate (Ann Reinking) who quietly accepts the other actresses he decides to sleep with.
In addition to Joe’s mistreatment of women, he also abuses drugs. There’s hardly a scene when he does not have a cigarette between his teeth. His carefully choreographed morning routine involves pills and eyedrops so he can get an inspirational high before putting his nose to the grindstone. However, the passion he throws into his abusive behaviors is an equally strong driving force for his work, which the film makes clear is a vocation for him.
On the most basic level, All That Jazz is a cautionary tale about wasting one’s talent and the dangers of throwing one’s life away on copious sex and drugs. At the same time, it is also more than the story of a super talented director and choreographer who dances and drugs himself to death. A sense of vocation permeates the film, from flashbacks of Joe’s childhood to interactions with his own daughter and Joe’s desire to leave the hospital as soon as he arrives there. All of these scenes show a burning drive to create that no amount of drugs or sex can replace or squelch.
Importantly, the creations are marvelous to behold. For my money, this is the best Fosse choreography ever captured on film. (No argument though with anyone who prefers his film of Cabaret.) A lovely scene of father-daughter bonding when Michelle stays late in the studio one night and dances with her dad shows how Joe has shared his talent and time with his daughter, the two gifts she wants more than anything else. Later she returns that gift with her dad’s girlfriend Kate in a two-woman performance choreographed to Peter Allen’s Everything Old is New Again. Erzsebet Foldi and Ann Reinking (Fosse’s own partner and collaborator for several years) are fabulous dancers, more than doing justice to Fosse’s dance routines.
Life imitates art imitates life. This is true both of the film and its creators and of the creations and characters within the film. The one scene we see edited over and over again from Joe’s upcoming movie is a monologue from a stand-up comic about going through the five stages of grief when one finds out they’re dying, which Joe himself starts enacting as his health begins to worsen. An elaborate striptease in a musical that is going to be a star vehicle for Joe’s ex-wife showcases the brilliant choreography and tremendous talent of Joe (and Fosse) while adding a sexual tension that is present in many aspects of his life. Finally, the way Fosse turns the final scenes into grand production numbers is the zenith of art and life blending.
As someone who works in the performance industry, it is rare to see anyone who lives life quite as recklessly as Joe Gideon. It is not uncommon to know people with substance abuse problems or a history of unhealthy relationships. However, even when an artist’s passions are misspent on destructive choices, that desire to create and partake in the divine creation is an unconquerable force. It’s a force Fosse understood, which is made clear throughout this entire film, especially in the fantasy sequences involving an angel (Jessica Lange) who forces Joe to reflect on his life even as she inspires him.
I suppose it is strange to find inspiration in a destructive tale of excess, but the celebration of beauty and art becomes a form of grace offered to even the most undeserving. While the film is cynical in critiquing the destruction an artist can choose to inflict upon himself and others, it simultaneously is a joyful celebration of the achievements the same artist can do if he applies his talents the way they were meant to be used.
Personal Recommendation: A+