“Folks! What can I tell you about my next guest? This cat allowed himself to be adored, but not loved. And his success in show business was matched by failure in his personal relationship bag, now - that's where he *really* bombed. And he came to believe that show business, work, love, his whole life, even himself and all that jazz, was bullshit. He became numero uno game player - uh, to the point where he didn't know where the games ended, and the reality began. Like, for this cat, the only reality - is death, man. Ladies and gentlemen, let me lay on you a so-so entertainer, not much of a humanitarian, and this cat was never *nobody's* friend. In his final appearance on the great stage of life - uh, you can applaud if you want to - Mr. Joe Gideon!”
– O’Connor Flood (All That Jazz, 1979)
In 1974, Bob Fosse – the preeminent Hollywood and Broadway choreographer/director – suffered three coronaries in rapid succession, undergoing emergency surgery to save his life. It was a watershed moment for the diminutive dynamo who later came to believe he owed something of an apology – or, at least, a rationalization for all the hedonism gone before it. In his Fellini-esque reflections on his own life, given the thinnest of veneers as Fosse’s doppelgänger, Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider), Fosse was to concoct a brilliant piece of cinema around his sole regret; not living up to his potential as a father.
The result: All that Jazz (1979) – a movie so scathingly pessimistic in its portrait of Fosse – or rather, Joe – as a boozin’, ballin’ and drug-addicted ‘attention whore’ and womanizer – it positively stings of some deeper, more despicable self-loathing. In tandem, the screenplay by Robert Alan Aurthur and Fosse is penetratingly glib and uncompromisingly frank, building on the irony of its lighter musical inserts – particularly the ‘After You’ve Gone’ hospital surgery review, complete with scantily clad Vegas-styled showgirls: a processional of fannies and feathers, flanked by the three women who contribute so much – and yet, mean so little – to our protagonist: ex-wife, Audrey Paris (Leland Palmer), their daughter, Michelle (Erzsébet Földi) and Joe’s new flame/chorine, Kate Jagger (Ann Reinking); each severely painted up in their Kabuki death masks and tricked out in monochromatic spangles and spats. It’s a deliriously self-reflexive moment – and it continues to linger in the mind’s eye long after the rest of All That Jazz’s arresting imagery has already begun to fade away.
If Fosse is making an attempt at any apology herein – and, he most definitely is – it can only be considered sincere. A taskmaster of more than a few eccentricities and a voracious sexual appetite, Fosse put his actors through grueling sixteen hour days; the implicit sexuality in his dance maneuvers, at times, made grotesquely erotic in All That Jazz. Joe Gideon is a bastard; his solo generosity, as Kate puts it ‘sharing his cock’ with potential starlets. There is a masochistic quality to Joe’s toe-bleeding/back-straining rehearsals. “If I die,” Joe tells Audrey as he is being wheeled into surgery, “I'm sorry for all the bad things I did to you.” “If I live,” he reiterates to Kate, “I’m sorry for all the bad things I’m gonna do to you.”
Joe can’t help himself. He lives, eats and breathes the theater – his all-consuming passion turning on, and devouring, its master. Fosse’s pantheon is about as far removed from all the glamor, goop and rank sentiment of A Chorus Line (1975), then one of Broadway’s hottest/slickest shows, dedicated to all that greasepaint and daydreams. But Joe Gideon’s life is a disaster: also, a nightmare; also – an accident waiting to happen: our protagonist implacably self-destructive. Even Joe’s idea of heaven – or rather, purgatory – with Angelique (Jessica Lange) as his incandescent angel of death, is a smoky memoir-infested steel trap, extolling his worst fears and most angst-ridden adolescent reminiscences.
At times, All That Jazz is maliciously bone-chilling; Joe’s malaise reaching from deep within Fosse’s own wounded psyche to contaminate his work; Fosse’s re-staging of ‘Take Off With Us’ – a presumably bouncy jazz tune – reconstituted as a ghoulish stupefaction of writhing, taut bodies, almost skeletal and wraith-like, with exaggerated sunken eyes, teased out hair and bulging genitals pressed tightly up against one another. Here is an aberration of Fosse’s own uncontrollable sexual fetishism; horrifying to the fictional financial backer, Paul Dann (Anthony Holland) who has hired Gideon with visions of dollar signs firmly affixed in his head, but after sampling his macabre staging of the number, depressingly declares, “Now Sinatra will never record it.” If anything, the musical portions of All That Jazz are a garish display meant to illustrate the vast disconnect between this show within a show and Joe’s emotional tailspin, destined to discredit his professional reputation.
Joe Gideon is a train wreck; his genius corrupted by his daily regimented self-abuse; a dizzying array of addictions: cigarettes, illegal drugs and meaningless sex. Each dawn, this physically/ psychologically devastated and dying creative rises anew to the chipper strains of Vivaldi’s baroque music, coming from his cassette player; a dry hacking smoker’s cough accompanied by a few well-placed drops of Visine in each bloodshot eye; a fistful of Dexedrine swallowed in haste to shake the cobwebs loose from his brain; two fizzing Alka-Seltzers meant to settle his perpetual nausea. There is, alas, no cure for Gideon’s contempt for himself; gaunt and cadaverous, emerging from his pulsating shower to catch a glimpse in the steam-soaked mirror above the sink, before weakly declaring, “It’s show time, folks!”
All That Jazz is an assignation with a fate Fosse can no longer deny; a means for the director to express and draw us into his own clairvoyant fatalism. Fosse’s embrace of this wicked and enveloping darkness, as well as its existentialist crises is deviant and esoteric. He isn’t soliciting sympathy for either Joe Gideon or himself; but rather laying bare the unholy travesty that is both their experiences in show biz. Like his alter ego, Fosse never asks for our forgiveness. He merely shows us what the years – and the industry – have done to the paper-thin walls of his heart and soul; without judgment, prejudice or, in fact, inferences anyone except he is responsible for the unraveling charade. As a tragi-drama, All That Jazz is grandly Shakespearean; Fosse unable to deny himself sudden outbursts of spontaneous blasphemy. This is, to be sure, a malediction: Joe Gideon something of a charismatic misanthrope reveling, yet repulsed by his own shameless exploitation, further ill-used by the sycophantic backers of his show, who believe he can do no wrong. No harm?…ah, now that’s quite a separate issue.
Joe Gideon is in full self-destruct mode; so close to the edge of his own demise he wilfully devours the last vestiges of his talent in a glitzy implosion of self-parody. For Joe, there is no point or purpose to these misguided pursuits. For Bob Fosse?…hmmm. In retrospect, Fosse’s fatal heart attack in 1987 renders All That Jazz eerily prophetic; the director giving us his own last act finale almost a full ten years before it actually occurred. And All That Jazz is deftly transparent in its parallels to Fosse’s life’s work and experiences; the ‘fictional’ Audrey Paris a dead ringer for Fosse’s real wife – dancer/actress, Gwen Verdon. Despite their failed marriage, Verdon would continue as Fosse’s most ardent champion; collaborating with him on both the Broadway-bound Chicago and this film. A fascinating moment where Joe Gideon humiliates chorine, Victoria Porter (Deborah Geffner) is a scene ripped almost verbatim from Fosse’s mistreatment of dancer, Jennifer Nairn-Smith during rehearsals on Pippin. Finally, Ann Reinking’s role as Joe Gideon’s plaything mirrors, if not the particulars, than most astutely, the sentiments of her own often rocky ‘relationship’ with Fosse.
All That Jazz opens with a round of slavish behind-the-scenes auditions for a new Broadway review, Fosse’s surrogate - choreographer/director, Joe Gideon, an uncompromising task master, mercilessly separating the wheat from the chaff as he whittles down a crowded stage of hopefuls into a select group of sleek thoroughbreds who can weather his unrelenting pursuit of perfection. Gideon is one of Broadway’s most prolific artistes; admired/reviled simultaneously as a creative genius and a maniacal workhorse. Unhappily, Gideon’s personal life is a shambles; a series of meaningless affairs, self-medicated with chronic addictions to cigarettes and sundry recreational drugs. It’s all in service to the show – or rather, to keep Joe’s celebrated ego from failing. Shoring up this emaciated dynamo isn’t as easy as it used to be. Gideon’s demons have long taken control over his tabernacle of genius and, as a result, his art has begun to suffer. His patience is threadbare too; his time divided between this new show and shaping the raw content of a ‘concert’ film for stand-up comedian, Davis Newman (Cliff Gorman).
There are four women in Gideon’s life. Well…four ever present, at any rate, excluding the countless chorines who have briefly adorned his apocalyptic black satin bedchamber. Three - ex-wife Audrey Paris, their daughter, Michelle and present mainstay, Katie Jagger - are among the living; the fourth – the elegant angel of death, Angelique is about to take Joe on a reflective romp through his mangled past. We observe young Joe (Keith Gordon) as a goony teen, teased and tempted by a pack of bawdy burlesque queens backstage before going out into a seedy nightclub, unaware their vigorous massaging has caused him to have…uh…an obvious accident south of the equator. It’s a moment of humiliation not to be forgotten and perhaps partly at the crux of Joe’s more recent and generalized contempt for women. He goes through women like crap through a goose, leaving as unremarkable a stain on their respective careers.
Given the obvious hell he’s put her through Audrey is uncommonly empathetic toward both her ex and Katie. After all, she can certainly recognize a woman in love – and sympathize with the parallels in their upsets. That’s just the thing about Joe. It’s difficult to hate him outright; his stress-ravaged fatigue expediting this inevitable journey to an early grave. And despite Gideon’s obvious disregard for either Audrey or Katie’s feelings, both share certain qualities; the nurturing kind of fool willing to sacrifice everything – including themselves – merely to save Joe from himself. Regrettably, some situations cannot be salvaged. Some people too.
Joe suffers a major heart attack in the middle of rehearsals, sending his callous backers, Larry Goldie (David Margulies) and Ted Christopher (Robert Hitt) into a nervous tailspin. Drifting in and out of consciousness, Gideon enters purgatory; Angelique his guide through this haunting TripTik of his misappropriated life. As his condition worsens, Gideon begins to reason the one unforgiveable transgression of his debauching lifestyle has been neglect of his daughter, Michelle – an aspiring dancer whom he so utterly adores – who worships him in kind – but whom he has never paid very attention to in the intervening years since her birth. If anything, Joe’s absenteeism has been primarily responsible for depriving Michelle of her childhood; this little girl who is uncharacteristically mature in her outlook on men and sex – the latter topic discussed with uncommon frankness - if, no personal experience.
Rushed to hospital with angina, Joe’s condition becomes grave; his abject disregard of doctor’s orders, and the enabling of his hedonistic lifestyle by his sycophantic flock of fair-weather friends - who couldn’t care less whether he lives or dies - escalating Gideon’s self-destruction to epic proportions. Intermittently, Joe begins his digression into ominous personal thoughts; attempting to blot out the ugliness with an even more garish display of self-indulgent behaviors; smuggling in booze, women and cartons of cigarettes and transforming this hospital room into a seedy party zone. But this is no laughing matter – neither for Joe, increasingly taunted by his own conscience – nor his doctors, who see little to no improvement in his cardiograms. After reading some scathing reviews for his feature film, taken from his hands and unceremoniously dumped on the market without his consent, Joe suffers a massive coronary, necessitating emergency bypass surgery.
The unscrupulous backers for the Broadway show now assert the only way to recoup their losses is to bet on Gideon dying. While the endless legal angling continues, Joe’s condition becomes critical. On life support, Joe fantasizes a phantasmagoric display of his life’s work – both public and private – the glitz, glam and razzamatazz of the theater coming to bear on more intimate scenes from his severely flawed childhood, youth, and horrifically mangled transgressions as an adult. He takes a queer pride in this bawdy homage; gradually made aware of his own inescapable mortality. In the grand finale, Joe’s life is exploited by ratings hungry variety talk-show host, O’Connor Flood. It is a pitiless humiliation, Flood coaxing Gideon to partake in this epilogue to his life story; just two showmen belting out a modified rendition of ‘Bye-Bye Love’; Angelique ominously beckoning from the wings as Joe bids farewell to Michelle, Audrey and Katie; a frenetic audience cheering his surrender; the celebratory atmosphere plunged into deafening silence with the disconcerting final shot; a cadaverous Joe Gideon zipped into a translucent body bag.
All That Jazz is fairly transparent in its semi-autobiographical account of Bob Fosse’s life; also, in its dingy homage to Federico Fellini’s 8½ and, even more directly, Juliet of the Spirits, the latter sharing its cinematographer, Giuseppe Rotunno, who transforms Joe Gideon’s musical hallucinations in All That Jazz into a vulgar and audacious pageant of self-aggrandizing impudence, decidedly unsentimental revelations and indelicate inside jokes; all of it sweat-soaked in Fosse’s inimitable narcissism. The disconcerting carnival atmosphere is augmented by a strong whiff of formaldehyde; Fosse’s sendoff predating his actual demise by almost a decade and therefore shamelessly smug. And yet, Joe Gideon commands such attention – if hardly, our respect; remaining impenitently unlikeable.
All That Jazz is essentially a very bleak, black comedy, one invariably designed to make us wince and cringe in tandem with the smiles and flamboyant toe-tapping. Remarkably, the movie is never anything less than cruelly compelling and inventively self-effacing, chiefly due to Roy Scheider’s mesmerizing central performance as this contemptibly tortured virtuoso. Fosse’s own augury shines through this man-made fog-inducing ‘dark ride’. A movie with so much to offer could so easily have derailed in its self-absorbed excesses. But All That Jazz never veers quite so far off its course, though there are minor hiccups every so often along the way.
It is an imperative faculty to be able to separate art from the artist; All That Jazz repeatedly testing our fidelity to do so; Roy Scheider’s, impish and abusive creative, chronically dissatisfied with life in general and his in particularly, herein triumphantly miscast as our squirming Don Giovanni, conquered by the devil, masquerading as his own profligacy. In an all-permissive era where anything can – and usually does – go, Scheider’s Joe Gideon emerges as a practically faultless purveyor of mostly spontaneous intemperance. Gideon isn’t entirely deliberate in his malice inflicted on others to get what he wants. It’s just his nature; as a scorpion poisonously stings to survive and consume the natural world around it.
The four actresses who make up Joe Gideon’s prospects for what is laughing referred to as ‘a good time’ are – each in their different way - a living testament to Fosse’s own artfully misfiring lifestyle. Ann Reinking remains paramount here – Fosse and Gideon’s lover, basically playing a derivative of herself; a formidable dancer/comedian who illustrates each strength with great authenticity in All That Jazz. Reinking’s keen empathy carries beyond the cynicism, becoming the movie’s emotionally grounded center. Leland Palmer handles the role of the juicy and tart romantic castoff with bittersweet command. But it is Erzsébet Földi who remains the ‘old soul’ of the piece; astute in her sage observations, devoted to this toxic man who can never be nearer her heart than while rehearsing his show. It is a joy to quietly observe the insightful bond between Földi and Scheider – a gifted child star, who later left the biz as a born again Christian. Lastly, we tip our hats to Jessica Lange’s luminous Angelique; intermittently austere and sensationally seductive (Fosse was having an affair with her too); a smoldering temptress whose supreme conquest is welcoming Joe Gideon into her shrouding embrace – nee, death.
All That Jazz succeeds because we can discover Fosse’s own confessional kernels throughout. These enrich our understanding of Joe Gideon’s flawed nature. Whenever Joe’s behavior seems improbably coldblooded we can turn to Fosse as his template by natural selection – and design. At the time of its release, critical response to All That Jazz was divided right down the middle. While some praised Fosse for his honesty, others condemned the movie as self-indulgent and maudlin. Today, All That Jazz seems more daringly autobiographical even if it teems with abject conceit; Fosse’s premature, though prophetic, epitaph etched in electric lights evolving into a sincere expulsion of his sins and sadness, awash in this spectacle of contorted daydreams and writhing ambitions. Perhaps Fosse’s motivations were predicated on fear – also, knowing he had escaped his own mortality only momentarily, and, by the skin of his teeth. Fosse’s greatest dread is, perhaps, mirrored in Joe Gideon’s anxiety he is ordinary, rather than special – a nagging conscience never effectively anesthetized.
Criterion’s Blu-ray from Fox sports a stunning new 4K digital restoration. Prepare to be dazzled. The green patina that plagued both DVD editions is gone. In 1080p everything sharpens up as it should. Giuseppe Rotunno’s cinematography has never looked quite so lush and vibrant. Better still, we get superior textures and layering, quite a lot of depth and a startling amount of detail filling this1.85:1 frame from corner to corner – the ‘wow’ factor in evidence. There’s more of everything to love and virtually no digital anomalies to distract – in short, a reference quality disc. The DTS 3.0 stereo is a veritable showcase for the film’s original compositions by Ralph Burns. George Benson’s ‘On Broadway’ is a knockout. Ditto for Ann Reinking and Erzsébet Földi’s ‘Everything Old Is New Again’. Ben Vereen and Roy Scheider’s Bye-Bye Love is crisp and lively. It’s time to retire your old DVDs. This Criterion Blu-ray is definitely the way to go.
Need more reasons to say yes? Criterion has imported almost everything from the previously issued DVDs; including both the 2003 and ‘07 audio commentaries featuring Roy Scheider and editor, Alan Heim. ‘Portrait of a Choreographer’ is a 2007 documentary on Fosse. There’s also ‘Perverting the Standards’ a brief featurette on the soundtrack. George Benson waxes about the decision to use ‘On Broadway’ to kick start the movie. Exclusive to this release are new interviews with Alan Heim and Fosse biographer, Sam Wasson. There’s also a 34-min. reminiscence featuring Ann Reinking and Erzsébet Földi. We get a half-hour episode of TV’s Tomorrow from 1980, featuring Fosse and choreographer, Agnes de Mille; another Fosse TV interview from 1981’s The South Bank Show and still another 26 min. from Fosse’s 1986 guest appearance with noted film critic, Gene Shalit. Winding down this bevy of extras are 8 min. with Fosse and 4 min. with Roy Scheider on the set. We also get extensive liner notes in a neatly packaged booklet. Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)