DIRECTED BY: Bob Fosse
FEATURING: Roy Scheider, Leland Palmer, Ann Reinking, Erzsebet Foldi, Ben Vereen, Jessica Lange
PLOT: A pill-popping, womanizing, workaholic choreographer’s hard living leads to a heart attack.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Aside from camp spectacles like Rocky Horror Picture Show, there aren’t many weird musicals. The musical is an inherently square art form. There are, however, frequently surreal dance sequences in musicals (see Busby Berkeley), and All That Jazz finishes up with some of the weirdest; it’s not enough to put the movie on the List of the weirdest movies in history, but it’s worth a watch if you swing that way.
COMMENTS: Joe Gideon, the stand-in for director/choreographer Bob Fosse, begins every day with the same routine: a drop of Visine, a shot of Alka-Seltzer, a cigarette smoked in the shower, a Dexie, and finally he’s ready to look in the mirror and announce, “it’s showtime!” The director, who’s in the early stages of planning a major (and scandalously erotic) Broadway musical while simultaneously cutting a movie about a stand-up comic (based on Fosse’s own Lenny Bruce biopic), also finds time to sleep with as many aspiring dancers as possible, down a few Scotches at night, and candidly chat about his life with his only confidant, a hot gauzy angel (the radiant Jessica Lange).
With its confessional premise of a womanizing artist painting a roguish self-portrait with the aid of fantasy, All That Jazz cannot escape comparisons to the iconic artist autobiopic, 8 1/2. Compared to Fellini, Bob Fosse is all sheen and surface. Jazz suggests none of the depths of the Italian’s conflicted Catholicism or his weary existentialism. For Fosse, life is just work, sex, speed, repeat. The two films suggest the difference between an obsessive artist, and an obsessive craftsman. On the cool scale, Roy Scheider is no Marcello Mastroianni, so it’s difficult to buy the film’s premise that everyone is in his life is charmed into submission by this smug, glib, self-appointed genius, beyond his unquestioned ability to advance their careers. It’s no surprise that Fosse isn’t as interesting as Fellini (how many people who have ever lived are?), but still, as embodied by Scheider and his arrogant Van Dyke, Gideon’s naughty hedonism manages to keep our interest through a somewhat repetitive first two-thirds.
Although the early reels provide entertainment enough to carry us through, Jazz doesn’t really start high-kicking until the heart attack strikes and Gideon’s anesthesia-induced musical fantasies kick in. The finale builds weight from the context of the character building that’s gone before; when the choreographer’s preteen daughter—dressed provocatively in an evening gown with a cigarette holder and fur stole—vamps “you’ll miss me daddy, if you go away,” the effect is touching and ironic, rather than creepy. The fantasy numbers are produced by a chain-smoking Gideon doppelganger who appears beside the bedridden director: “you don’t have any lines here,” he mocks as the invalid tries to mumble through his gas mask to the loved ones passing before his mind’s eye. It arrives at a show-stopping, heart-stopping finale set to the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love” (with altered lyrics). A smarmy Ben Vereen, acting like a telethon host, croons and hoofs his way alongside Schneider in a disco-age Vegas netherworld complete with flashing colored lights, horrible automaton heads in the audience, and dancers dressed like Slim Goodbody. The number is stretched out for ten minutes, with a couple of false climaxes, but it never drags; it may not be the summation of a life’s work, but it is a masterpiece of its type. Emphasisizing seduction and drug abuse over tap dancing and top hats, All That Jazz is a musical that can appeal to people who hate musicals, which is a valuable service for many of us.
In 2014 the Criterion Collection pried the rights to All That Jazz away from 20th Century Fox, turning what was already a pretty good DVD release into a superlative DVD/Blu-ray package.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…an uproarious display of brilliance, nerve, dance, maudlin confessions, inside jokes and, especially, ego. It’s a little bit as if Mr. Fosse had invited us to attend his funeral — the wildest show-business sendoff a fellow ever designed for himself — and then appeared at the door to sell tickets and count the house; after all, funerals are only wasted on the dead.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
(This movie was nominated for review by Dwarf Oscar, who noted, “It’s pretty weird at times, but I actually don’t know if that is a weirdness inherent to the genre of musicals, or if that film is truly one of a kind.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)