'All That Jazz' Is Bob Fosse's Cinematic Self-Flagellation

This excellent, entertaining, and accurate bio-pic of Bob Fosse's life and death was actually co-written and directed by Bob Fosse eight years before he died.

All That Jazz

Director: Bob Fosse
Cast: Roy Scheider, Ben Vereen, Jessica Lange, Ann Reinking, Leland Palmer, Keith Gordon, John Lithgow, Cliff Gorman, Erzsébet Földi
Length: 123 minutes
Studio: Twentieth Century Fox and Columbia Pictures
Year: 1979
Distributor: Criterion Collection
MPAA Rating: R
UK Release Date: Import
US Release Date: 2014-08-26

Bob Fosse is a legend for a reason (or, rather, many reasons). Bob Fosse is the only human being ever to win a Tony Award, an Academy Award (Oscar) and an Emmy Award for best director in the entire history of all three awards. What’s more, he is the only human being who ever won a Tony an Oscar and an Emmy all in the same year. The fact that he actually won a Best Director Tony, a Best Director Oscar and a Best Director Emmy all in the same year makes the odds even more unbelievable. However, 1973 was far from the only year that he won awards as his career was studded with statues virtually throughout his entire adult life.

Needless to say, the director, dancer, choreographer, actor, screenwriter, and editor, who died in 1987 at age 60, led a fascinating life worthy of an awe-inspiring and award winning biopic all its own. That film came in the form of All That Jazz, which borrowed its title from a song in Chicago, a musical he was long associated with. All That Jazz is a hard-hitting and brutally honest look at the hedonistic, type-A personality artist that was Bob Fosse and chronicles his life up to and including his death from a heart attack.

In a twist of reality worthy of a Bob Fosse film in itself, All That Jazz was not released after Fosse’s 1987 death, but eight years prior in 1979. Further, this prophetic biography was co-written and directed by someone who should certainly have known the truth… none other than Bob Fosse himself.

To this end, the semi-autobiographical fantasy screenplay (written with producer Robert Alan Aurthur) substitutes Fosse with Joe Gideon, as brought to the screen by a post-Jaws Roy Scheider. Perhaps a lesser artist than Fosse would have romanticized Gideon into a better, more sympathetic version of himself. However, the Joe Gideon that we meet is a constant womanizer, drug and alcohol abuser and chain smoker who has sex with a different dancer every night and approaches his career by burning every candle at both ends.

This is, as Fosse confesses here and as others have documented, exactly what the Fosse of the mid-'70s was up to. After his triple Best Director win, Fosse went on to direct 1974’s award-winning film Lenny and frantically edited, reedited and re-reedited the film almost constantly while simultaneously staging a 1975 revival of Chicago on Broadway. It was this era of the acclaimed director’s life that almost killed him and it was this era that inspired All That Jazz.

Fosse continues to “stage” Gideon as a stark and honest version of himself as Gideon is pressured by studio heads to complete his editing of the film-within-a-film called The Stand-Up (Lenny was the story of iconoclastic stand-up comic Lenny Bruce) while simultaneously bringing to the stage a huge Broadway musical. Gideon’s ex-wife is modeled after Fosse’s ex-wife. Gideon’s daughter is modeled after Fosse’s daughter. Gideon’s girlfriend is modeled after Fosse’s girlfriend. The man who plays the fictional editor of The Stand-up was even Alan Heim, the real-life editor of Lenny as well as All That Jazz itself. Gideon is as much Fosse as All That Jazz truly is.

The brilliance of All That Jazz is that none of these prerequisites are needed to be fascinated by this film. To be certain, the fact that this movie is so personal and still so difficult adds many more facets to the story itself. However with no background at all, All That Jazz is still a brilliant film, though often hard to watch.

The Criterion Collection’s 2014 release of All That Jazz makes both the enjoyment and horror of All That Jazz more palpable. Certainly the film looks and sounds better than it has, arguably since the first wet prints graced the silver screen with its 4K digital restoration and 3.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. Going beyond the feature (as Criterion always does and must) the set features select commentary by the late Roy Scheider, two documentaries, an engrossing booklet and even on-set footage. The bonus discs feature copious old and new interviews with those involved with Fosse and All That Jazz and the Fosse beyond the film. Perhaps the most poignant and hard-hitting of these is a late night Tom Snyder interview with Bob Fosse and fellow choreographer Agnes de Mille filmed for The Tomorrow Show. Here Fosse, already a superstar, reveals himself to be a funny, affable and likeable guest, a far cry from the Joe Gideon self-indictment that we are given in the film itself. It’s hard to reconcile the fun, yet dedicated artist Fosse reveals himself to be with the character he pastiches himself with in All That Jazz.

Then again, Joe Gideon never quite crosses the line into villainhood, and it is hard not to hope that he will come through his troubled times and give (the fictional) us the amazing works that he has proven to have within him. Like Fosse, Gideon is revealed to be immensely talented, showing the reasons for his fame. Similarly, Gideon is shown to have so many good people who love him that it’s hard to believe he is all bad. This balance of character makes the fantasy sequences all that much harder to face. As Gideon dreams of his life as a Broadway stage and his ex-wife, daughter and girlfriend engage in a perfectly choreographed, dark song and dance routine demanding that he change for them, it’s impossible not to feel something for the man.

This is not to say such a sequence is a surprise as Gideon is shown to have a truly flirtatious relationship with a glamorized Angel of Death (as played by Jessica Lange). As the dream sequences continue and Gideon is brought almost literally into a hell of his own making by a gleefully smiling Ben Vereen, the depth of Fosse’s self-flagellation and perhaps even prophecy is displayed. Fosse had built his life on the stage and in movies. It feels so fitting that his nightmares all involve being trapped in a dark Broadway musical of his own making that the astute viewer may regard much of the film as horror as opposed to fantasy or drama.

These elements, dark though they are, comprise the real reasons that All That Jazz is a great film, worthy of the Criterion treatment. Fosse fans, Broadway fans, and those fascinated with film will find quite a lot to admire in this 2014 release. However, those expecting a fun musical romp will need to inquire elsewhere and at some other time and place. All That Jazz is engrossing and deep, but in the depths there is always darkness. All That Jazz’ brightest moments are still darker than the darkest parts of Pippin, at least as chilling as the most foreboding parts of Cabaret and even more cynical than the most depressing parts of Lenny. Make no mistake, All That Jazz is an excellent motion picture in just about every way, and it is also nothing less than Bob Fosse accurately predicting his own death in the most creative and skilled way he possibly could.


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