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  • Writer's pictureMichael Ballard

All That Jazz (1979): Flirting With Death

By Michael Ballard

“If you look at the history of the Hollywood musical, I don’t think another chapter has been written since All That Jazz.”

--Sam Wasson, Bob Fosse biographer

He follows the same ritual each and every morning: a few drops of Visine to soothe bloodshot eyes, Alka-Seltzer to settle a queasy stomach, some medically prescribed Dexedrine to wake him up; and with a little smile in the mirror, he frames his face with the splayed fingers of jazz hands and exclaims, “It’s showtime, folks!” All performed to the lively opening of Vivaldi’s Concerto alla Rustica. And so begins the decline and fall, and posthumous redemption of director/choreographer Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider).

Toward the beginning of Bob Fosse’s semi-autobiographical dazzler, All That Jazz, Gideon quotes Karl Wallenda, the patriarch of the high-wire act, the Flying Wallendas: “To be on the wire is life. The rest is waiting.” It is a motto Gideon embraces body and soul. Striving to spend more time on the wire than on the ground, he pushes himself to the edge in every facet of his life. He smokes and drinks too much. He abuses his medication. He chases after every woman he can get his hands on. And he constantly strives for perfection in his art, a goal which, in his mind, he can never attain, yet his single-minded pursuit of excellence (along with his physical excesses) puts such a strain on his body it eventually kills him.

Anger, Denial, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance

Constantly on the move, Gideon is in the middle of two massive undertakings. He is in the editing stages of a major motion picture, and he is directing and choreographing a new Broadway musical. Also, throughout the film Gideon looks back on his life in conversations with an angel of Death, in the guise of a beautiful woman, Angelique (Jessica Lange), where he is open and candid about his flaws and fears. What begins as a flirtatious tête-à-têtegrows darker as Gideon’s demise becomes imminent.

Gideon is presented with one reason after another to stop and change his ways--a woman (Ann Reinking) who loves him unequivocally, a daughter (Erzsébet Földi) who absolutely adores him. Unfortunately, no matter how heartfelt and compelling their appeals, they do not sway Gideon from his reckless and relentless march toward self-destruction. In the end nothing is more important than the work. In one scene, Reinking’s character tries to express to Gideon how much she loves him and how much it hurts her when he sleeps around (her line is much more colorful, and so funny that I am reluctant to reveal it here--it brought the house down when I saw the movie for the first time in a theater--because it is better appreciated in the moment). Gideon’s initial reaction, however, is not in response to her feelings. He is so impressed with the line, he simply says, “That’s good. I can use that sometime.”

Gideon is in perpetual denial regarding his physical decline, but by the second half of the movie, he begins to move through the five stages of grief, first outlined by Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969 (the movie reverses the first two stages and puts Anger first). There is one piece to this puzzle, however, that I always felt was missing. We learn, through Gideon’s mother, that he’s always had a “crush” on Death, and while his final curtain hovers over every frame of the film, the story never explores the origin of this fixation. One’s own death is a sensitive subject, without a doubt, and I suspect Fosse, in a story that is essentially about Fosse (he co-wrote the script with Robert Alan Aurthur), was only prepared to broach the subject, but not quite ready to delve into the whys and wherefores of this obsession, except, perhaps, to suggest that the only thing that matters is the show you’re putting on--the art you are creating--no matter what toll it takes on you.

Inventive juxtapositions

Fosse and editor Alan Heim (who won the Academy Award for editing) have assembled an energetic and invigorating pastiche (part musical comedy, part satire, part philosophical treatise, part self-laceration) of an artist trying to come to terms with the life he’s led and how he has chosen to lead it. The result of their collaboration is a cinematic high-wire act.

The movie strives to keep up with this artist on the go by employing a disjointed editing style that allows the whole to become greater than the sum of its parts. Cuts often come slightly before or after you’d expect them to occur; cutaways are suddenly inserted into a sequence of shots that might jolt your expectations. But they do not yank you out of the film. They feel right because they add to the emotional weight of the storyline in the moment. This applies to both the musical and the dramatic sequences. In the “On Broadway” sequence at the beginning of the movie (a set piece that could stand on its own as a mini-documentary on the audition process), there is a brief series of shots, from different angles, of the auditioning dancers raising their arms in unison. The cuts don’t quite come on the beat, as you might expect. The imagery, acting almost as a counterpoint to the music, heightens our engagement in the moment.

In one of the dramatic scenes, Audrey (Leland Palmer), Gideon’s ex-wife, is rehearsing a solo number in a dance studio, and they get into a sparring match over why their marriage failed. There are moments when, after a long take of both actors in the frame, you think the camera might cut to a close up of one or the other. Instead, it cuts to a wide shot of their reflection in the studio’s mirror which, of course, reverses their positions in the frame. This back and forth cutting is like a dance (because, really, it is a choreographed scene). It keeps the eye engaged and reinforces the tension in the scene.

Music as commentary

The Hollywood musical has gone through many incarnations. From song and dance just for the sake of song and dance, to splashy, larger than life numbers that burst the frame and helped to define the language of cinema, to musical numbers that advanced the story as characters burst into song and dance in the middle of a scene, to songs and dances that delved into darker themes as well as the psychology of the characters. And finally, in the world of Bob Fosse, notably his two masterworks, Cabaret and All That Jazz, the stories are set in an entertainment mileau, giving the musical numbers a natural setting while commenting on the action in the story.

In the charming number, “Everything Old is New Again”, the self-loathing Gideon sees and understands how much he is loved and appreciated; however, in spite of all he has to gain, we fear he will never change his self-destructive ways, especially when we witness the scene that follows--instead of a wake-up call, it is another of his wake-up rituals in the bathroom; only, he’s moving a lot slower and the smile in the mirror is really, really forced.

In the show-stopping finale, he’s dying, but he gives himself one hell of a sendoff with “Bye Bye Life”, a darkly comic twist on the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love”. It is an over the top and scathing rendering of his love/hate relationship with show business, the thing that gives his life meaning and which, ultimately, kills him.

And one final satiric nail is pounded into the coffin when, after Gideon’s corpse has been zipped into a body bag, we are treated to Ethel Merman’s rousing, lung busting rendition of “There’s No Business Like Show Business”.

Let’s dance

The Fosse style was unlike anything anyone had seen before. It opened a new window on the world of dance and gave everyone a fresh perspective on what the human body could accomplish. The unwieldy postures, the isolation of body parts, the snaps, the pops, the jerks, the angles. Some even argue his style was a precursor to hip-hop.

And oh, did he know how to shoot those sequences. He knew when to pull back and include the entire body of the dancer (or dancers), and he knew when to zoom in and isolate significant details, a taut wrist here, the drumming of fingers there. The dance numbers alone in All That Jazz are a master class in choreography and filmmaking. And the Airotica sequence, in my opinion, is one of the most stunning numbers every filmed.

Redemption justified?

I hadn’t seen All That Jazz in some time. After watching it again, recently, I was reminded of another film about a self-absorbed artist, Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry. In Harry, Woody Allen is a writer who exploits every relationship he’s ever had to create his stories. One major difference between the two films is that Fosse allows Gideon to be forgiven during his final bow, while Harry is never forgiven by the people he hurt. In the end, Harry’s only solace comes from the stories and the characters he created. In other words, his art is his salvation. It is the only thing that will ever sustain him. It is a hard look at the choices an artist will sometimes make in order to keep going, to keep creating.

Fosse, on the other hand, while hard on Gideon most of the time, gives his fictional counterpart an out when everyone pardons him at the end. Does this make All That Jazz a lesser film? Not necessarily. In fact, after reading Sam Wasson’s biography of Bob Fosse, I discovered that this was what actually happened most of the time. People were continually forgiving Fosse his shortcomings and his misdeeds. So you could argue Fosse was just telling it like it was--from his perspective. Self-indulgent and brilliant, All That Jazz is Bob Fosse’s dark and hilarious take on show business and the toll it can take on one who chooses to dedicate his life to this demanding, sometimes ruthless, endeavor.

All That Jazz airs on TCM, Wednesday, September 2, at 7:45pm (PDT), a part of the network’s prime time tribute to Bob Fosse.


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