All that Jazz is a movie that shot up on my list of favorites from the moment is started playing. It’s a fascinating film all about how life intersects with art, all done in a remarkably unique style and featuring great performances. While the film’s end may fall a bit short of its opening promise, All that Jazz is still a beautiful testament to artistic genius.
Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) is an overworked Broadway director and choreographer, trying to put on a new show, edit his second film, and juggle his ex-wife Audrey (Leland Palmer), daughter Michelle (Erzsebeth Foldi), and mistress Katie (Ann Reinking) all through heavy drug and alcohol use. Realizing that he is dying, he imagines the saga of his life and decline as a stage show, relating his experiences to Angelique (presumably some sort of angel of death, played by Jessica Lange) who listens as he prepares. As he goes into heart surgery, his existence is consumed by his imaginary show of his own death.
The film is a lot of ways a character study of Joe himself, played to the hilt by Roy Scheider. He fits right into the theater archetype, doing anything to get his vision on stage (or film). We see him start his day periodically throughout the film, with Vivaldi, Dexedrine, Alka-Seltzer, eye drops, and a cigarette in the shower. Held together with drugs, he goes about his work, only stopping to bang some anonymous dancers. He is certainly a despicable person at times, but glories at his debasement in service of his art. The musical numbers relating to his death certainly reflect this combination of high and low opinions Joe has of himself, with Ben Vereen insulting him gleefully as he introduces his death.
The musical numbers in the film are used quite ingeniously, as this isn’t your ordinary musical but more of a several days in the life movie plus some musical hallucinations. Still, they play an integral part in the film. The early ones are ones Gideon designs for his show (“Take Off With Us”), but the later ones are all in his imagination. They include accusations hurled at him by the women in his life, which are all fairly short and fantastically done. To add a layer of commentary, Gideon directs them himself sitting next to his immobile body in his hospital bed. The final number, “Bye Bye Life,” symbolizing his death somehow is a little bit of a let down. It doesn’t ruin the picture or anything, but it is not quite the ending the film has been building up to. Sure, it continues Gideon’s agonized self-congratulation, but I suppose it’s somehow diluted by the use of a familiar song and the presence of Ben Vereen, who upstages Scheider a bit.
All that Jazz is all about Gideon, but it’s also about art. Fosse cleverly uses the musical numbers, editing, and the production design to convey the difference between Gideon’s indulgent artistic fantasies and his actual life. The editing in the film is clearly influenced by the French New Wave, often taking moments out of context and simply cutting out parts of conversations that are deemed unimportant. The production design is especially interesting because most of the story, the “real” part, takes place in regular space, but the imagined show part takes place backstage, onstage, and on a movie set. It’s cool to have the space reflect the real world and Gideon’s artistic imaginings.
All that Jazz is a great film. It’s one of the best movie musicals I’ve ever seen, though it isn’t you standard movie musical. The ending might be a slight letdown, but it doesn’t hold the film back that much. It’s part confession, part excuse, and a lot of self-indulgence, but it’s also a thoughtful commentary on art’s purpose and an insightful character study.
“It’s showtime, folks!”
Long story short: 4/4 stars
For Further Reading: