All That Jazz
Director: Bob Fosse
Starring: Roy Scheider, Jessica Lange, Leland Palmer, Ann Reinking
I love musicals. I really do. They are so wonderful, such fantastic entertainment. I love the classic MGM musicals (but I’m not a fan of Rodgers and Hammerstein – more on that later), I love the early black and white musicals, I think the recent dabble into musicals again is great, but when you talk about Bob Fosse, then we’re talking an entirely different level of musicals altogether. When I was in college, I took a one-off theater studies course, and in it, we spent a bit of time discussing Fosse. Since then, I’ve been utterly fascinated by him. Having this set up for this film, this autobiography of Fosse, his incredibly cruel portrayal of himself, with plenty of that sublime choreography thrown in for good measure, and, um, yeah, I’m a fan.
The story follows Joe Gideon (Scheider), a hard-working theater director/choreographer/ filmmaker, as he gets his new Broadway show started in rehearsals during the day and edits his latest film at night. His ex-wife Audrey (Palmer) loves and respects him but can’t stand him, his young daughter Michelle worships him, and his live-in girlfriend Kate (Reinking) adores him despite the fact that he continually cheats on her. Surrounded as he is by people who support him, Gideon cannot help but drive his health into the ground, not getting enough sleep, hooked on painkillers, and continually smoking and drinking. He carries on a fantasy dialogue with Angelique (Lange), the Angel of Death (or Life, based on your interpretation), which intensifies when Joe is hospitalized.
I agree wholeheartedly that there are two distinct reactions to this film. You either find it a frighteningly honest portrayal of a man completely aware of his own mortality, or a wildly narcissistic and self-indulgent ego trip by a man simply glorifying his own life. I fall squarely in the former category, but even within my family, opinion is split; my sister definitely thinks it’s the latter, having been terrifically unimpressed by it. For those who say that this is simply Fosse’s self-indulgence reaching its zenith, I just don’t think you’re getting at the heart of the film. I don’t agree that this is Fosse thinking his life is SO fascinating that it warrants a film. I think this is him exorcising his demons; it’s almost a living will. Fosse had his first heart attack in 1974, which followed on the heels of his winning an Oscar, an Emmy, and a Tony in the same year (the only person to do so). There’s no doubt that Fosse had tremendous professional success, but in this film, he doesn’t focus his story on that in the least. Instead, he focuses on his personal failures. To me, I read this as almost an apology to those he is closest to in his life. Through the conversations with Angelique, Gideon comments several times about “not knowing where the bullshit ends,” meaning that he cannot help but lie to those in his life. And yet he loves them. He loves Audrey and Kate and Michelle. At the end especially, there are some lovely lines to Audrey and Kate that are clearly Fosse himself speaking to those he loves. He’s sorry for being such a dick. He really is. He really loves you all. But he also knows that he’s an asshole. So this is the best way for him to apologize and let you know just how much you meant to him. That’s how I read the film.
What further convinces me that this is not simply Fosse indulging himself is how he portrays the business angle of show biz. The backers and producers of Gideon’s latest show clearly do not love Gideon. They do not worship his talent. They are not working with him because he is a genius. They are working with him because they know that his show will make money. This is driven home in a scene late in the film when the board meets while Gideon undergoes open heart surgery. They coldly rifle off budget numbers and conclude that if Gideon dies, they’ll make money despite the fact that the show never even opened. No one could give a flying crap what actually happens to Gideon, and Fosse knows this. He knows that he is not valued because of any “genius” on his part, but simply because of his capacity to make money. He’s not fooling himself.
Given that Fosse died of a heart attack in 1987, All That Jazz is a frighteningly prophetic film. The second half of the film, where Gideon is hospitalized, is a musical theater interpretation of what dying must feel like. It’s one thing to have Fosse write a script where his alter-ego apologizes for his many faults, and yet keeps on committing them anyway, but it’s quite something else to know that those very faults brought him down, and not that long after this film was made. Flat out, I see this as Fosse predicting his own death. Fosse knows that he is ruining his own life, so what does he do about it? He makes a film about it, about his all-consuming weakness when it comes to making real changes to his life.
Audrey was a stand-in for Broadway legend Gwen Verdon, Fosse’s ex-wife with whom he fathered a daughter, and Kate was a stand-in for Broadway legend Ann Reinking, Fosse’s live-in girlfriend and protégé. The fact that Reinking essentially played herself (apparently, though, Fosse made her audition just like everyone else) is what makes this film pass over from semi-autobiographical to completely autobiographical. Furthermore, given that Reinking and Verdon both have become guardians of Fosse’s inimitable style of choreography, to get to see Reinking dance his steps, as directed by him, it’s a joy. If you watch Reinking in the dance numbers, when she is dancing the same moves as another dancer, you can tell that her understanding of the dance is far greater than anyone else. This is not just “another” dancer. She completely inhabits not the moves, but the philosophy behind the moves. It’s utterly captivating. My eye is drawn to her in every dance. I want more.
Speaking of the dancing, I have to go into my Fosse spiel here. When it comes to choreography, holy crapola, but Fosse was something else. I’m by no means an expert in dance, but I know a little about it. I danced ballet as a young girl (like many young girls) and revisited it for a year in college. That was the same time that I started learning about Fosse. Ballet is all about lovely gentle curves. I remember in my ballet classes in college, the instructor would talk about the line we would make from our neck to the tips of our fingers. Everything is connected, and the hands and fingers are merely extensions of the arms, finishing the moves the arms make. Fosse couldn’t be more different. Fosse’s choreography is typified by angles. There’s a lot of pelvis, a lot of ankle, and a lot of wrist in Fosse. He was fascinated by the human body creating angles that weren’t natural; the spine curved under, fingers spread as wide as possible (he loved jazz hands), feet in peculiar positions, short hops. I don’t have a better way of saying this: I love Fosse’s choreography. I just can’t turn away from it. It’s hypnotic to me. In All That Jazz, the best “Fosse” numbers are easily the “Take Off With Us/Airotica” routine and the songs performed by Kate, Audrey, and Michelle in the death dream sequence at the end. All I can say about these exquisite pieces of art is this: watch them. Watch them. They are glorious.
Oh man, and I haven’t yet talked about the truly filmic aspects of this movie. Scheider, himself not a dancer or singer, is awesome here. He had to campaign for the part by spending one on one time with Fosse, but Fosse eventually saw that Scheider would be capable of pulling it off. The part of the Angel of Death is wonderful and vital, and Lange, in only her second film, is simple yet sublime as the sweetly smiling seductress, happily encouraging Gideon as he indulges in his excesses as she knows it will hasten him to her side. Fosse shoots the film absolutely brilliantly, creating scene after scene filled with fantastic visuals. Everything gets shockingly white and bright as we progress towards the inevitable conclusion. The film is full of bright white lights, especially in the second half, representing the uncomfortable fluorescent lights of hospitals, the klieg lights of the theater and film stage, and the symbolic light of Death, whisking away another soul from the world. For those not as interested in the singing and dancing, the film gives you plenty in the way of fascinating visuals for you to feast upon.
I have to say I’m pleased that the response to this film is generally positive amongst my fellow film bloggers, given that it contains singing and dancing. I like that others seem to consider this “the musical for those who don’t like musicals.” Fosse is so fascinating a character, and his choreography, utterly sublime. I am enthralled by him, and I cannot believe how anyone would have the courage to commit this particular self-portrait to celluloid for all eternity. He turns the camera eye inward with such a cold eye, pulling out his deepest flaws and insecurities and throwing them on the screen for all to see. Meanwhile, it’s entertaining as all get out. This is a damn good film.
Bottom line, this movie excites me in a way few films are capable of. I can’t really think of a better compliment.
Arbitrary Rating: 9.5/10 Oh, and I love the use of the Vivaldi Concerto Rustica too. Because I didn’t have enough good things to say already, right?