The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Self-Portrait of the Artist as a Manic Depressive: ALL THAT JAZZ

Written by: Kyle Turner, Special to CC2K

Black Maria staff writer Kyle Turner on the excellent Criterion blu-ray release of All That Jazz.


“I’d like to run the whole thing again!” says an anguished Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) in a haze, as he wanders around a hospital replaying scenes from the film he recently finished editing in his head. Here, not only in this scene but in this entire film, legendary director and choreographer Bob Fosse presents himself in all of his broken down, egotistical, manic glory. In All That Jazz, Bob Fosse uses the meta-musical as critical self-examination, comic to the conclusion that being a visionary might kill you in the process. Joe Gideon is a renowned stage director and choreographer who’s trying to mount a Broadway musical by day, while editing his film about an iconoclastic comedian by night. He tries to hold himself together through a diet of sex, drugs, alcohol, and hallucinations–and he begins to question whether those things are the glue that that keeps him going, or merely another thing that’ll bring him to his downfall. It’s a morbid concept to think that Fosse’s conclusion to being a great artist, or at least as depicted in this film, is essentially to drive oneself to self-destruction. But, oh how it does play out on screen. The heavily autobiographical film takes place during the period of time when Fosse was creating and shaping his iconic musical Chicago and finishing up his film LennyAll That Jazz is, in essence, Fosse’s Limelight– another film which, in a somewhat self-aggrandizing manner, depicts the Tortured Genius in all of their glory, only to continually see and display their suffering. It’s an interesting way to perpetuate these ideas that the Genius (whatever that means), is a fundamentally troubled person. Charlie Chaplin’s faded Limelight comedian resorts to alcoholism,  and his life exists as a bum in a tenement. Gideon’s trajectory is superficially more successful, given that he is alive and well, but is burdened by the doubts of producers and those around him– not to mention the fact that the musical (which is over budget and over schedule) taps into facets of sexuality that are too hot to handle. His escape is through sex, drugs, and alcohol, as if amping up the vices in Chaplin’s Limelight by three.

And All That Jazz executes experiencing those vices in such spectacular fashion. With some of those most incredible editing ever on film by Alan Heim, the film propels you into the worlds of Joe Gideon, both real and unreal. Gideon’s anxiety crawls under one’s skin, as you hear the sound of a pencil snap and nothing else, despite the crowd around him (in a table read) laughing uproariously. You’re as trapped as he is. It’s hard to call All That Jazz “joyous”, but despite the morbidity of the film, it’s breathtaking to behold. Filled with the verve and energy that characterized Fosse’s work in such a singular manner, every scene bursts with his audacity. The editing is as perfect as one could possibly imagine, and the sheer electricity of the film does anything but detract from the film’s darker elements; instead, it accentuates their importance. The best example of this is the final hallucination. Gideon finds solace in confiding in and flirting with Angelique (Jessica Lange), the attractive Angel of Death-cum-therapist, be he decides to take center stage while under anesthesia for open heart surgery. During this, he directs a series of musical numbers (“After You’ve Gone”, “There’ll Be Some Changes Made”, “Who’s Sorry Now?”, and “Some of These Days”). In a way, it’s interesting that Gideon should be behind the camera– Fosse appearing to be honest about his own hesitance regarding complete transparency. It makes sense; this is his most vulnerable state, but it’s done with flair. The songs that are performed are self-critiques, asking Gideon to change his lifestyle, own up to his sins, and they are a demand, both from himself and the people who love him, to be a better person. One would assume that this kind of artifice would distance the viewers form the very idea of understanding Gideon, or even Fosse for that matter, as someone who wants to confront his own ego and flaws. And yet, without that theatricality, something would be missing from the film; All That Jazz sparkles because that is the only way Fosse can be honest with his audience.

Scheider is extraordinary as Gideon, channeling everything wonderfully and horribly manic about the character. That intensity is paramount for the Gideon’s character, but the nuance in Scheider’s performance regarding that self-examination rings even more essential. Thus, the anguish and the exhaustion feels palpable and painful, and the scenes with Angelique feel serene with an odd sharpness. Fosse never lets Gideon off the hook entirely. Each utterance of “It’s showtime, folks!” becomes more encumbered by weariness. There is a somberness to the character which registers as lucid and truthful, and those quiet moments of anxiety that aren’t part of Fosse’s more stylish articulations with the pristine editing are the film’s most tender moments. So many owe a great deal to Fosse and All That Jazz (Baz Luhrmann, Requiem for a DreamGlee, etc.), and the Criterion edition of the film is a testament to his vision. It’s a daring spectacle that is as personal as it is ridiculously transcendent. Is it overloaded with ideas? Probably. Is it full of ego? Of course. But it’s an outstanding work of confidence, frankness, and veracity. My favorite sequence in the film is when Kate (Ann Reinking) and Michelle (Erzsebet Foldi) dance to Peter Allen’s “Everything Old is New Again”. Fosse could reinvent whenever he wanted to (take his film Cabaret, for example), and he may be a proto-Luhrmann with some of his more postmodern experimentation. He liked to borrow elements form various styles of dance and music to concoct extraordinary masterpieces. He was an alchemist. As the two women (well, one is his daughter, a young girl) who love Gideon dance around him displaying their naked affection, Allen suggests a single thing: “Let’s go backwards when forward fails.” And so Fosse did: he made All That Jazz.