Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) is exhausted. A lifetime of dancing, boozing, drugging and womanizing has left him dog-tired. He’s a virtuoso in the eyes of Broadway colleagues, and a pain in the ass to the moneymen financing his latest motion picture, The Stand-Up – the chronicle of a wall-eyed, “edgy” jokester (Cliff Gorman), who’s portrayed by an actor Gideon can’t altogether hide his disdain for during marathon cutting sessions. He’s over-budget, burned out, but still tenaciously pursuing his main vice: the company of women. Even as an ex (Leland Palmer) incredulously spies him handpicking dancers for his latest stage show from afar, and a girlfriend (Ann Reinking) stumbles in on post-coital trysts with his newest maiden (Deborah Geffner), the man just cannot get enough. This is his addiction – more so than pills, beer or the ‘biz – and he will be indulging until the day he dies.
All That Jazz is a sausage factory film, directed by one the packing plant’s premiere employees. It’s no mystery that co-writer/director Bob Fosse (Cabaret) crafted an autobiography about his own struggles with being. But then again, Bob Fosse was always committed to making “Bob Fosse movies”; this one just happens to place his alter ego smack dab in the center. Though he only completed five features, they combine to form a body of work representative of a somewhat unexplainable genius. Starting with Sweet Charity (the 1969 big screen adaptation of his breakout musical) and ending with Star 80 (a seedy, exploitive portrait of doomed Playboy Bunny, Dorothy Stratten), Fosse’s output as a filmmaker contains a unifying essence: we’re being led backstage by a man who knew his way around the sets, the clubs and other performers’ bodies. Though there is some self-aggrandizing, Fosse is far from afraid to turn the microscope on himself, analyzing the soul of an imperfect man molded by show business.
The jump from stage to film makes sense, as Fosse’s background as both a dancer and choreographer saw him dealing with bodies contorting in space. The art of dance itself is cinematic; allowing the performer to not only convey a silent story via their form, but also their innermost hopes, wants and desires. Once you layer a soundtrack on top of writhing players, you have cinema in the purest sense – no need for dialogue or exposition. All That Jazztakes this idea a step further, dealing with the destruction of a dancer’s only tool. Gideon’s hard living has finally caught up with him, as he’s now a pale, balding, sweating, chain-smoking mess; a ritual of pills, hot showers and eye-drops necessary just to make it out of his flat in the morning. Inevitable failure is the only option for Joe’s body, but he’s going to push it to its limits until his heart finally gives out (predicting Fosse’s own fate in 1987).
Fosse takes his introspection to the next level by adding another stratum to All That Jazz: Joe’s inner monologue with God (portrayed by Jessica Lange), who acts as a kind of therapist, hearing the fragile artist’s confessions. The interior of Joe’s soul, of course, is a stage – perfectly lit, sparsely dressed and populated as the scene calls for it. These flashes are where Fosse truly displays how deeply he comprehends the potential of cinema – the ability to portray both the real world ins and outs of a microcosm he navigated his whole life, while simultaneously spelunking the nadir of his own spirit. It’s on this inner rostrum that we see where young Joe (portrayed by Keith Gordon) grew up (inside of a burlesque house, surrounded by half-naked showgirls), and evolved into the self-loathing lothario who overtook the world of musical theater. Joe has grown comfortable with who he is and the lies he tells; a fact made clear during the dialogues he enjoys with this Heavenly apparition.
How perfect Roy Scheider is in the role of Joe Gideon truly cannot be overstated. Usually known for hard-nosed turns in crime pictures like The Seven-Ups or French Connection, Scheider deftly inhabits Fosse’s skin, embracing each icky imperfection that comes along with it. The leathery character actor has always had incredible eyes – deep, brown and ever-probing. In All That Jazz, he uses them to disrobe and disarm both his lovers and the audience, whilst never letting you overlook the multitudes that exist within this fractured individual. The way Scheider navigates being desirable, lecherous, insightful and abrasive, often all in the same scene, is astounding (his assessment of one dancer’s chances of being a “movie star” is both devastating/hilarious). Without him, All That Jazz would collapse, and watching the actor completely throw himself into the barnburner of a final number is one of those lump-in-the-throat moments of arty transcendence. In a career that stands out in his (or any) generation, Gideon is the absolute pinnacle of his imaginative achievement.
The incessant twirling, back and forth between crowded headspace and the sweat, blood and tears behind the scenes of Gideon’s latest show would be an utter nightmare if it weren’t for Alan Heim’s nimble cutting. Much like the bodies Fosse is enraptured with, All That Jazz moves in ways that feel otherworldly. Film isn’t supposed to flow quite like this. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the photography by Giuseppe Rotunno (Amarcord) deftly alternates between fantastical soft glow and hard-edged realism (capturing a specific period of NYC excess), depending on which plane Fosse is currently playing on. As much as All That Jazz is an intensely personal motion picture, it’s also a dazzling display of technical ability. Fosse fuses the contributions of his brilliant collaborators into a deft act of self-expression, the sum total of individually impressive creative feats.
All That Jazz is often thought of as an out-and-out musical (usually by those who have never seen it), but the movie really only transitions from intimate character drama to bombastic stage play during its final act. After Joe’s heart gives out, he’s crippled – waiting for his beautiful God to claim him while the art to which he devoted his lifetime runs through his mind in various incarnations. During these hospital hallucinations, Fosse distinguishes his musical from all others by making it comment on the function song and dance pictures actually serve for those who work on them. This is how artists like Gideon view the world, and it’s a glorious show tune, decked out in Fosse’s trademark bowler hats and black tights, wiggling the tips of their jazz fingers as we wonder if this is the last number Joe will ever witness.
Being a stellar showman, Fosse saves the best for last, and places Joe right in the center of a glittering storm. All That Jazz’s final number, “Bye Bye Life”, is a glam rock rager, celebrating Gideon’s genius while simultaneously shooting him off of this mortal coil like a human mortar shell. This is musical as catharsis; a purging of all the awful shit that Joe pulled during his life while also reveling in what he created with the brief time God allotted him. That’s the beauty of Fosse’s picture, and what makes it jaw-droppingly profound. It’s a tribute to human beings in all their imperfection, recognizing that, no matter how terrible you might’ve been at certain points, or what highs you may have felt professionally, experience itself is a triumphant, wonderful accomplishment. You meant so many different things to so many different people. You made friends and enemies. You loved and lost. You did your best to try and raise a child. You attempted to craft art that’ll live on past your mortal form. You fucking lived.
It’d be easy to read the ending of All That Jazz as cynical – a mastermind who ended up on the slab, just like the rest of us. But the movie’s closing frames are only the inevitable finale to anyone who was born. Sure, the suits will try and capitalize on your brilliance, debating how they can profit off of your eventual demise, but the sheer vibrancy of simply being is the tangible thesis of Fosse’s masterwork. It’s about the joys of creation and the limits one will push themselves to in pursuit of attempting to achieve something great. In-between are the struggles and failures of an ordinary person, no different than anyone in the audience. Fosse brings himself down to our level, humanely relating and letting you know that it’s OK to have your weaknesses, just let your strengths shine through and define you instead.