Growing up in the 70’s, I hated musicals. I was gravely impatient over the musical numbers commonly embedded in 1970’s variety shows. Feature length cartoons or live action films that stopped to sing and dance? I rolled my pre-teen eyes. And don’t speak about Fantasia. I saw it in the 70’s when it was re-released to theaters. Devil Mountain or not, once I realized it was All Music, my mom and I left the theater, with me in tears. The horror. The horror.
So, its a surprise to confess All That Jazz has long remained one of my favorite films and I was amped when it received the Criterion treatment last August.
Roy Scheider plays Joe Gideon, avatar of Broadway legend Bob Fosse, the films director and choreographer. Gideon is an obsessive artist driven to the point of exhaustion and illness. He never stops working, drinking, smoking, womanizing—even at the expense of his heart, his life. We track him from the editing suite of his film The Stand-up (a nod to Fosse’s Oscar-nominated Lenny), to the rehearsal hall for a new show he’s struggling to put together, to family time with his ex-wife and daughter, to private time with his girlfriend, Katie (Ann Reinking), to the parade of female dancers in and out of his cancerous black bedroom. All this framed by his morning rituals of showering, pill popping and a self motivating ‘Its Showtime, Folks’ heralded to his reflection in the bathroom mirror.
Add to this a series of flashbacks from his teen years as a tap-dancing act in cheap burlesque clubs. He confesses sins and memories to his Lady in White, Angelique (Jessica Lange’s film debut). Their scenes together made me think – wouldn’t it be cool when you die, instead of getting a life review, you instead just sit backstage in pergatory talking over your life with an angel while you wait to be called?
There are only women in Gideon’s life, sweaty bodies all inter-changeable as lovers or dancers. He even choreographs a duet with his daughter, Michelle (Erzsebet Foldi), while they chat. He is as honest and open with his daughter as he is with Angelique. Any leftover truth seems reserved for the stage.
The films’ dance scenes resonate like none other by being so screamingly bold and alive. All That Jazz sweats and smokes and coughs. It appreciates the agony of the creative process as much as the finished work. The legendary On Broadway cattle call montage that opens the film is a self contained mini movie about the auditioning process that I could watch on loop for hours. But the film is full of masterful sequences. Gideon’s exchange with his ex-wife Audrey (Leland Palmer) as she rehearses a solo while confronting him over years of flagrant infidelity is raw and mesmerizing. Its a sequence I’ve long admired even if I only now understand it: a woman claiming her space while calling out her sham marriage and philandering partner to his face.
I’m a horrible dancer and my snarky remarks over Dancing With The Stars may’ve ended my last relationship. Yet watching Gideon struggling with the creative process while working with his dancers while made me rethink choreography, the body and how artists can write with movement. Its probably a small but realistic glimpse at how Fosse actually worked. Gideon works his dancers harder than sled dogs. At the end of rehearsals they collapse on the floor layered in sweat, unable to move. Look at the faces of the dancers after their run-through of the famous Airotica sequence. They all smolder as if they’ve just had a years worth of running and sex. Under Gideon’s merciless thumb, they pretty much did.
Roy Scheider is strangely perfect in this. He’s lean and driven, sexy and sickly and a good body double for Fosse. His face and ability to think on-camera is a true movie star’s superpower.
But its all song and dance with Death watching from the front row like a critic. Filmmaker Akira Kurosawa once said a true artist never averts their gaze. Gideon doesn’t blink at Death’s approach. Its there with him in the shower montage, it walks with him to and fro on the street, its there while he’s alone thinking in the studio. While hospitalized for heart surgery, he choreographs in his mind a show stopping number before an audience of family, friends and enemies alike that represents his entire life. His imagination casts fake plastic variety tv-star O’Conner Flood, played by an electric Ben Vereen, as a kind of Death with backup singers dressed as the circulatory system.
Is this the first musical about art and sex and death? Its certainly the first musical that values honesty and it pulls no punches. Thirty years later, its still hard to watch the real open heart surgery juxtaposed with Gideon’s producers and agents wondering whether they’d make more money if Gideon lives or dies. All the world is a stage, even and especially its ugly parts. Its hard not to get chills when the first bars of Ethel Merman’s No Business Like Show Business kicks in for the closing credits. Suffering in the name of art? That’s entertainment.