Anger. Denial. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance. – Five stages of death
One of the ten best films ever made. All That Jazz (1979), the wild hyper-sexual movie musical, is to my adult senses the most sheer exhilarating movie time and time again. I get a buzz and tingles from it that builds to an ecstasy. Bob Fosse would have been regarded as one of the greatest directors of all-time if he hadn’t succumbed to a premature heart attack in 1987, but he only made five films: “Sweet Charity” (1969) the square but ebullient musical, “Cabaret” (1972) the Nazi-era musical drama that won Fosse a Best Director Oscar, “Lenny” (1974) on the pioneer of foul-mouthed stand-up comedy Lenny Bruce, “All That Jazz” which took off inspiration from Felllini’s “8½,” and his final film “Star 80” (1983) about the tragic murder of Dorothy Stratten. Fosse, an established stage dancer who fostered into a prominent choreographer, soundly knew about the following: Showbiz, glitz, lust, sex, excess, carnality, how to photograph tableaus of bodies, the highs of womanizing, the pangs of being a workaholic, egomania, drugs and chain-smoking. All of that on display in “Jazz.”
It’s the egomania and womanizing that will put off some people from “All That Jazz,” that’s inevitable. If you’re not offended, then you’re bound to be dazzled – and maybe like me find it to be the sexiest movie you’ve seen. And best dance movie, too.
Roy Scheider is Joe Gideon, a Broadway theatre and film director, working on auditions for a new show (the flash montages of dancers! Wow!) and editing a little film that he treats like it was an epic. He has a main girlfriend (Ann Reinking) and a series of lovers on the side (Deborah Geffner as Victoria Porter is my favorite), and an ex-wife (Leland Palmer) who still idolizes him. What sucks about most real-life womanizers as that they lie about it, but here’s Joe Gideon, truthful and straight-forward that he’s a womanizer. He has the energy for it, he’s an open opportunity lover, he is honest about who he is, and as a reward for it, is loved endlessly by all. If only life for the rest of us were that easy.
Gideon makes things complicated for himself though, for he is dependent on a daily dose of Visine, Alka-Seltzer, Dexedrine and sex. Directing an innovative musical number for Broadway is what drives him, nonetheless. “Take Off with Us” is one of the numbers in his latest show, and early rehearsals reveal it to be a limp and tedious number, and slowly, it becomes a body-contortionist , sex-mad number that I’d say emits an orgiastic pulse. These sequences are probably the best I’ve ever seen about the artistic process, starting with how humdrum number develops through rehearsal into genius. During off-hours, Gideon has an adoring daughter (Erzsebet Foli), a young teen budding ballet artist, who puts on another showstopper: “Everything Old is New Again,” a simple living room number that is irresistible, and a favorite of mine.
The story seeps into fantasy with unapologetic grandiosity – especially the last third. The critics that didn’t declare “Jazz” a bold masterpiece upon its’ release were typically irked that it stole from Fellini’s “8½” which was basically about a film director, a la artiste, who lives life according to his own terms of imagination. I’m sorry, but as visually astounding and thematically daring (if uneven, it steers into solipsism for a few minutes here and there) as Fellini’s film was, “Jazz” outdoes it with pulsating bravado and nerve.
Undergoing a massive coronary brought on by exhaustion and physical abuse of his body, Gideon – and the film – goes into a dream state that is topped off by the climactic “Bye Bye Life” with song-and-dance man Ben Vereen as Gideon’s collaborator, and it turns out to really be his death song. If you’ve got to go out, Fosse is saying, an artist imagines an artistic way to go out. Jessica Lange is the exquisite Angel of Death of “Jazz,” the embodiment of perfect beauty who is isolated away from every other woman in the film. Nobody can have the Angel of Death but him, all to himself.
Minus the tangents into death and fantasy, Fosse asserted in interviews that “Jazz” was semi-autobiographical. The idea for the story sprung to life, Fosse says, while he was editing “Lenny” while simultaneously staging “Chicago” for Broadway during 1974. Scheider had the perfect no-bullsh** bluster and panache to stand-in as his mirror image. Warren Beatty and Paul Newman were names pushed by the studio, but nixed by Fosse. Richard Dreyfus actually won the part but dropped out just before filming, perhaps from the stress of living up to the physical demands of the part (he would have also come across too kvetchy in that trademark way of his). So Scheider, known for thrillers with “The French Connection” and “Jaws” among them, filled in Fosse’s shoes with surprising ease. He didn’t act the part, he embodied the part.
Fosse’s self-indulgence wasn’t just flaunting in what was his fourth film, it was reckless. But let me say this about Fosse. He took the swishy thing called male dancing and turned that itself into a calling card heterosexual endeavor. He was a film and stage actor, dancer, Broadway choreographer and director, screenwriter, film editor and film director with his own stamp of innovative razzle-dazzle cuts. Self-indulgent boring people I can’t put up with. Self-indulgent talented people you can’t stop me from being fascinated. If I could have traded lives with anybody in world history, it might have been Bob Fosse. See “All That Jazz” for that unconventional reason alone.
123 Minutes. Rated R.
MUSICAL DRAMA / CHARACTER STUDY / MASTERPIECE VIEWING
Film Cousins: “8½” (1963, Italy); “Cabaret” (1972); “Stardust Memories” (1980); “Chicago” (2002).