While I usually don’t go for the film’s taglines as I, more often than not, find them predictable and oversimplifying the film, this has to be one of the best ever given to a film. Bob Fosse’s explicitly autobiographical, Palme d’Or winning 1979 film is exactly what its tagline makes it to be. I would simply rearrange the order of the sentences.
Bob Fosse’s work is influenced by post WWII European cinema, most notably Fellini and his use of spectacle and fantasy in a cathartic way as well as the formal innovations of the French New Wave especially as manifested in Godart’s cinema. From his first stint as a director, Sweet Charity, Fosse doesn’t hide his fascination with Fellini and in All That Jazz, the Fellini obsession strikes again and it suits the crazy, obsessed, maniac and self destructive artist within Fosse like a glove. The film takes a cue from 8 1/2 and narrates the destruction of a Broadway and film director and choreographer in quite a self-reflexive manner. Life, Broadway, art and show business all intertwine in a very truthful account of how overworking your mind and body, as most jobs ask of you, will finally take its toll on you.
Joe Gideon’s life is show business. He hates show business. No, he loves show business. He wakes up every single morning painfully aware of what it will take for him to stay in show business and that’s his life. All that Jazz is effectively a film that makes the case that show business, as well as art, is a way of life one can adopt until it finally consumes them, become their life before it takes their life. Gideon is popping pills, smokes to relax, works himself beyond his limits and ends up in the hospital. And, while, he doesn’t want to die, he has been thinking about his death from a young age, it seems. Perhaps that’s why the self destructive behavior, another facet of the life of the artist. Pills as medicine but also as recreation, booze and women as associates and as lovers make up his everyday life. Oh, and a guilty conscience, as a conversation with the angel of death makes him realize his mistakes. And while his regrets get to him, making him weaker, his creative drive as well as his vices won’t allow him to really make good, as the only way he has learnt how to function and deliver is by bossing people around and taking advantage of what they have to offer him.
Fosse is being so honest in this picture, as the self-reflexive elements of the film are not limited to its form and Fosse’s career but include his personal life and thoughts as well. Fosse, like Gideon, was born into show business and, as the film helps explain, his obsession with sex, half-naked women and sequins must have been molded from his time as a little kid being around and in burlesque shows. Ann Reinking essentially plays herself in the film as she was Fosse’s girlfriend for many years and Leland Palmer’s character is based on Gwen Verdon, whom Fosse married in 1960. While they separated during the 1970s they never divorced and remained close, collaborating on numerous projects, All That Jazz included. As in the film, Fosse’s main women in his life were by his side during his lifetime, as All That Jazz showcases, but also after his death as Verdon and Reinking collaborated for Fosse, the stage musical that featured some of Fosse’s most iconic routines.
The film is based on an actual heart attack Fosse had while editing Lenny and directing Chicago for Broadway. And, one can imagine, that the way the film illustrates Gideon’s thought process and worries during the heart surgery and during the final ‘Bye Bye Life’ segment is a very insightful view on life and death as show business by one of show business’ greats. Roy Scheider makes the whole film seem as close to real as it ever could, as his performance is what holds the film together, at once funny and melancholic, with a permanent sense of irony in his eyes. The film includes my favourite Fosse routine with the ‘Take off with us’ segment, really showcasing his signature moves, a bit awkward but beautiful, angular and lyrical at the same time while it communicates the kind of bonding and sensuality that dancers often not only exude but also experience. Other routines remind the audience of Fosse’s earlier work, complete with pelvic thrusts, shoulder rolls choreographed to the music’s percussion.
Most importantly, the film faces life, as well as death, with a sarcastic, celebratory and critical attitude, recognizing that sorrows and struggles exist side by side with happiness and creativity, overpowering and consuming those who will allow themselves to live. Would Gideon want it all to end any other way? I don’t think so. And, for those who haven’t seen All that Jazz and think it sounds a lot like Nine, it is because they revolve a very similar concept, famously immortalized in film in 8 ½. And while Nine is ‘officially’ based on Fellini’s film, it is All that Jazz that had managed to adapt it in a way which explores American culture through show business as honestly as 8 ½ did for Italian cinema and Italian culture in general. All that Jazz is preoccupied with the relationship of death and art, in the same vein that 8 ½ explores the relationship of life and art. All in all, this is Bob Fosse’s most personal and, to me, most profound work.