If you think musicals are all about fairy tales and a happily-ever-after then you’ve got to broaden your definition, and here is the film that will help you do just that. All That Jazz is not your parents’ musical. Then again, depending on your age, it might have been, but it’s definitely not for children. Jazz is an intense, surrealistic, and brutally honest (albeit glittery) autobiographical production with brilliantly conceived and dynamically executed musical interludes directed and co-written by the legendary showman of choreographers, Bob Fosse.
Unlike what many may consider the usual musical where people irrationally and suddenly break out into song, Jazz mixes the oldest school tactics with fantastical cutting-edge concepts. Like the early days of musicals, the story here centers on an actual stage production of a musical, allowing the rehearsals of the stage numbers to naturally exist within a traditional narrative format. In addition to this classic structure, Fosse inventively used fantasies and hallucinations for the practical presentation of the other musical numbers that seamlessly intertwine with the rest of the film (how else would you introduce a musical number set during open-heart surgery?).
Fosse mirrors the details of his own life as he tells the sordid story of Joe Gideon played by Roy Scheider. He is a demanding musical director who is trying to balance his work with his hectic personal life. In a bold and revealing portrayal, Fosse bravely shows Gideon as a life-long chain-smoking womanizer with a consuming drug habit.
At the moment Gideon is overwhelmed with choreographing a new show, auditioning dancers, and editing a feature film about a standup comic (Fosse directed the biopic Lenny about infamous comedian Lenny Bruce). Without chemical fortitude Gideon wouldn't have the energy to keep up with his girlfriend (played by then real life girlfriend Ann Reinking), his ex-wife (based on actual ex-wife Gwen Verdon), or his pre-teen daughter. When the Angel of Death begins to stop by for regular visits, Gideon soon realizes he is about to pay a high price for his insane lifestyle.
The dazzling dance sequences are fabulous and luminous, running the gamut from Vegas-inspired surgical procedures to erotic airline-themed numbers that border on soft-core porn. Top it off with a young and ethereal Jessica Lange as the Grim Reaper and it’s not such a bad way to go. Jazz is a spectacular example of the magnificent heights the underrated musical genre can attain. As demonstrated here, when orchestrated by a well-honed creative mind, the musical is far from dead. On the contrary, its future lays in the capabilities of its untapped possibilities. Fosse was leading the exploration when his own dark angel called for “show time!”
Recognized for its excellence, All That Jazz was honored with Academy Awards in four categories including Best Costume Design, Best Score, Best Editing and Best Art Direction. The film was also nominated for Best Actor, Director, Movie, and Cinematographer, losing out to Kramer vs. Kramer for the first three categories and Apocalypse Now for Cinematography. Earlier in the 1980 award season Fosse shared the Golden Palm at Cannes with Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha. Scheider was also nominated for a Golden Globe, but lost out to Peter Sellers for his performance in Being There. All in all not bad company in which to place second.