All That Jazz: The Musical’s Closest Brush with Death

Bob Fosse's All That Jazz is a boozy breath of creativity, ego, and fatalism...which is why it's still worth celebrating after curtain call.

Last week and on a whim, I attended the New York Film Festival’s opening night screening of All That Jazz. The semi-autobiographical movie, which is Bob Fosse’s loving hate letter to himself, played that night almost by pure coincidence. Along with a collection of other 20th Century Fox classics, Jazz got bumped up to primetime Friday night space because Pope Francis had descended upon Manhattan like a hurricane—one whose exaggerated impact by the media had caused a citywide panic of delayed galas and canceled workdays.

All of which is to say, bless Papa Francesco. Without him, I would not have rediscovered how stunning a work of art All That Jazz tends to be.

I’ve seen Fosse’s monument to show business and narcissism several times before, but those viewings were all over a decade ago when as a teenager, the film’s death fixation was more a foreign concept than a gnawing statement about oblivion. In fact, I suspect many have a habit of overlooking this song-and-dance nihilism for that very reason. For while All That Jazz took home the Palme d’Or from Cannes in 1979, as well as earned Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor—the latter of which Roy Scheider ever appears robbed for—36 years later, it still seems necessary to remind people about one of the 1970s’ last masterpieces of cynicism.

Jazz is like having Bob Fosse’s boozy breath exhaled onto your face. It’s a startlingly manic experience that is fueled by ego and a lusty passion for the ugly side of life and art: the blood, the sweat, and the tears. And despite Fosse still being a direct influence on pop culture, whether via music videos or the latest Rob Marshall Oscar contender, that passion for the dirt under the fingernails in a genre usually revered for its gloss and fantasy remains a distinctly unique staple of this particular filmmaker.

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Few other musicals deal with subjects as brutal as the rise of Nazism in Weimar Germany like Cabaret did in 1972 (which somehow won Fosse an Oscar over Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather). Nor do they ever show the dancers as exhausted, browbeaten, and wholly miserable as they appear in All That Jazz.

Indeed, Jazz goes a shade darker than Cabaret. There might not be any brown shirts present, but this one is all about the aforementioned sleaze and torture of show business taken to its logical conclusion for Fosse: a private path beckoning to hell. All That Jazz courts the favor of death—quite literally on the screen—just as much as applause in a genre typically associated with uplift and escapism. And for a picture made eight years prior to Fosse’s own passing, an event that was not that far removed from All That Jazz’s ending for the fictional choreographer/director Joe Gideon, it might be too vivid an embrace for some. It is also one of the many things that makes Jazz pulsate with a possessed rhythm impossible to shake off.

Upon its release, Jazz was not unfairly compared to Federico Fellini’s 8 ½. It’s pretty hard to miss how much of an influence that titan of avant-garde filmmaking was on Fosse. Both pictures deal with vain, decadently flawed artists who are experiencing a block of creativity in the face of overwhelming success—as well as crumbling personal relationships.

One might even imagine that Fosse, who is the star of All That Jazz in all but name, dares you to welcome the contrast since he depicts his cinematic doppelganger, played by Roy Scheider, to be a film director, a theater director, and the choreographer all at once. And his private life is even more of a mess than Fellini’s Guido, with another mistress or an ex working on every project he is balancing alongside a healthy diet of pills, liquor, and the omnipresent cigarette.

However, the real qualities of All That Jazz come from the self-importance placed on interests specific to Fosse, showcased here with all the intensity of a lit-up 42nd street marquee sign.

As the first film that Fosse shared a co-writing credit on, Jazz bluntly draws from his life when it imagines Joe Gideon (Scheider) as a Broadway director and choreographer about to mount a comedy-musical with his ex-wife Audrey Paris (Leland Palmer). He is also trying to get this show off the ground—one which he blatantly loathes the music and book for—while simultaneously editing a fictional film called “The Stand-Up” in a post-production schedule that has gone long over-budget. Meanwhile, there is also his protégé and girlfriend Katie (Ann Reinking) who he is chronically cheating on and ignoring almost as much as his 12-year-old daughter Michelle (Erzsebet Foldi).

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Anyone with a passing knowledge of Fosse’s career can spot the Chrysler Building-sized similarities. Fosse’s greatest collaborator was arguably Gwen Verdon, who in addition to being his wife and mother of his daughter, was also the marquee name in Redhead and Sweet Charity. She also headlined Chicago in 1975 as Roxie Hart; Fosse directed and choreographed that last show four years after they had already separated. Additionally, this final collaboration overlapped with the editing of his cinematic follow-up to Cabaret, a comedy biopic about stand-up comedian Lenny Bruce: Lenny. And oh yeah, somewhere around this time he had open heart surgery.

So yes, All That Jazz’s Joe Gideon mirrors Fosse all the way down to the heart surgery, though the experience concludes with different results. Thus the movie takes on both the confessional tone of an unrepentant sinner facing his last call on life, as well as a boastful braggart reminiscing about how many gigs and women he could juggle. And what makes the film an actual stunner, as opposed to pure self-aggrandizement, is that these elements are balanced into a product that is quintessentially of the 1970s yet remarkably timeless.

Jazz is a master class of editing by Alan Heim. The picture maintains the deliberate grime that was a pre-requisite in most of that decade’s best American films, including Fosse’s work. But the movie is also ahead of its era, predicting in many respects the dawning of a music video world where jump cuts give a disorienting and overwhelming effect to the seas of dancers and their sweat-glistening bodies. It also helps propel the entire tone of the picture into something maddening and intentionally garish. This is a movie that knowingly mixes old 1920s jazz standards like “There’ll Be Some Changes Made” with glitzy ‘70s disco. One can almost imagine the cocaine lines sprawled across the negative.

It’s an assault on the senses of both sight and sound, and it allows Fosse to explore subjects he perhaps couldn’t get away with so readily on a Broadway stage like sex—the womanizing Joe Gideon stages an unmarketable burlesque number complete with nudity during his show’s workshop, much to the producers’ dismay—and, of course, death.

Using the optimism supposedly inherent with people bursting into song and dance, Fosse eulogizes and condemns his life eight years before his real death. This intent is hardly subtle since Death is an actual character in the film. She’s played here with bewitching friendliness by Jessica Lange and is shrouded in a virginal white dress, perhaps because she is the most purely earnest presence in Joe’s life. But onscreen, she is always the unmentionable stranger… as well as Joe’s best friend.

The best way that Fosse distinguishes his approach from 8 ½ is that Joe is frequently having an inner-monologue in his head with the Angel of Death. We learn from a flashback that Joe has been a fan of hers since he was a child, and as a self-admitted “bull-shitter,” it’s only in Death that he can confide his true feelings. Maybe.

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The film’s sense of fun and humor distills almost exclusively from Joe’s ability to pal around with Death in a years-long foreplay until their inevitable consummation. The film might drag into a finale with Joe in the hospital on the precipice of life and death, but his hallucinations are not that of a man deciding whether he is staying or going, but more of one looking at the devastation he is about to leave behind before bedding his true soul mate.

The overall effect of the movie thus ceases to be watching a character embrace fatalism and instead becomes the actual storyteller visually grappling with demons he faced only four years before shooting the picture. It also accompanies an implicit acknowledgement that he, nor Joe, will change enough for it to matter in the end. And like Joe’s heart condition, Fosse’s was on borrowed time until his similar passing in 1987.

Yet strangely, All That Jazz is not a downer. It’s defiantly hilarious and uplifting while wallowing in doom. This is the chance for Fosse to tear the velvet curtain off show business’ glitz. We are meant to revel in the twisted fantasy of a showman’s morning routine as Joe Gideon repeatedly begins each day with a cigarette in the shower and a large handful of prescription pills to go down with his breakfast. “It’s showtime, folks” stands as the buzzed exclamation point on the ritual.

And on the actual mounting of his unnamed Broadway show, Joe unveils his only real compassion for the dancers he cuts in a very unglamorous casting call that opens the picture. Notably, Fosse’s rival Michael Bennett also began his Off-Broadway success A Chorus Line with a similar scene several years earlier, but by eschewing an actual musical number for this cinematic alternative (the scene is ironically underscored in montage to George Benson’s “On Broadway”), Fosse attempts to one-up his competitor by making the business the antithesis of romance. The dancers aren’t the main characters; the guy crushing their dreams is. They don’t have time for lines unless they’re willing to sleep with him.

The only fun musical number of the film occurs in a sequence that is not even meant to have been staged by Joe. His girlfriend and daughter surprise him with a remarkably playful dance in the living room to Peter Allen’s “Everything Old is New Again.” It’s a charming number that you can watch below as his daughter showcases her new talent while Katie slowly ingratiates herself better into this family.

However, it also works on a much more interesting level than that. In addition to being a jovial reprieve from the movie’s cynicism, and the closest element to a “classic musical number,” the scene is in its own way about mortality—and the pleasant upside of its abrupt ending.

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Dancing before Joe Gideon is his legacy, implicitly promising him that his life’s work will go on. On the one hand, there is his daughter for whom everything old is now new again, including the classic Vaudeville style of dance that first enamored Joe (and Fosse) as a young man. As his literal progeny, she will continue his memory with love.

Then on the other flipside, the number is choreographed in the narrative by Katie, who is as much a student and protégé to Joe as she is a lover. In this moment, she is proving to be a gifted choreographer in her own right, guaranteeing that Joe’s professional legacy (which he spends more time cultivating) will live on too. And most revealing of all, Katie is played by Ann Reinking, Fosse’s real life girlfriend at the time, who did go on to be a successful choreographer. She even starred in and choreographed the revival of a Fosse show in 1996: Chicago. That version still plays on the Great White Way.

Slowly, the experience is less about watching a film than witnessing two mirrors reflect and re-reflect a blurring image.

All That Jazz—”Everything Old Is New Again” from Daniel Shannon on Vimeo.

The actual traditional musical numbers do not occur until the last third of the film when Joe Gideon is on death’s door and he imagines all the women in his life he is failing—ex-wife Audrey, future ex-wife Katie, and little Michelle—and his inability to prevent that heartbreak because of a fixation with Jessica Lange’s most enticing offer. The musical numbers are again those old standards, including “Bye, Bye Love,” turned into gaudy disco covers like “Bye, Bye Life.” With Ben Vereen next to him, Joe sings and dances his way into the Great Beyond with an ironic smile.

This portion of the film is arguably excessive. The fantasies of dying with upbeat songs, each marking another person he is leaving behind, are electric with their stinging juxtaposition. They even push the line toward genuine heartbreak by the final moment when he says goodbye to his ex-wife and daughter. But the sequences of Joe wandering the hospital and stepping through the many stages of death with nurses and orderlies borders on indulgent.

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Yet, it works for two primary reasons. The first is that Roy Scheider is giving his career best performance as Joe Gideon. Throughout the film, Joe has proven to be a selfish, destructive, and casually cruel narcissist. But hey, he’s an artist! And Scheider makes that mean something. He is not careless; he just cares too much about his passions, including good ones (dance, storytelling, his daughter) and the bad alternatives (every vice he puts in his body). But most unfortunately, the ultimate vice turns out to be Death.

The ending lands with the flying impact of a Nicholas Brothers dance number, because the whole film contrasts music and joy with annihilation. And it doesn’t necessarily draw a fine distinction between those two sensations. All That Jazz is in love with itself and with the undiscovered country. Granted, that country for Fosse looks like an icy blonde waiting in bed. But that is what makes this movie such an alluring, and terrifying, romance. It’s eternally prescient with its ecclesial top hat and cane.