Wednesday 9 September 2020

Movie Review: All That Jazz (1979)

An autobiographical musical drama from director Bob Fosse, All That Jazz explores the creative tensions and character flaws propelling a visionary artist.

Addicted to cigarettes, prescription drugs and sex, Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) is burning himself out simultaneously conducting auditions and rehearsals for a new Broadway musical (an erotic airline show) while editing his latest film Stand-Up (about a controversial Lenny Bruce-like comedian played by Cliff Gorman). In his imagination, Gideon is also reviewing his life with the mythical Angelique (Jessica Lange, as the Angel of Death).

Ex-wife Audrey Paris (Leland Palmer) is part of the Broadway show and trying to hold on to her fading youth, while Katie Jagger (Ann Reinking) is Gideon's latest girlfriend, although he openly cheats on her. Both Audrey and Katie have a good relationship with his talented and precocious tween daughter Michelle (Erzsébet Földi). With his producers increasingly worried about their financial investments, Joe's health threatens to collapse.

Director Fosse co-wrote the script with Robert Alan Arthur, and uses All That Jazz to bare the soul and insecurities of a man stretched too thin. Motivated by a desire to never be ordinary and terrified by the prospect of failure, Gideon operates in full-speed-ahead mode, pushing past the point of exhaustion and ignoring all the danger signs until death greets him with a smile.

The film's first half is excellent, an exhilarating introduction to Gideon's chaotically creative existence. The auditions, rehearsals and editing scenes crackle with dawn to dusk intensity, Gideon always demanding more from himself and all around him. But his humanity is also revealed through tenderness towards the dancers and women in his orbit. Although unable to ever be faithful, Gideon remains a caring presence in the lives of Audrey and Katie, and is always ready with a shoulder around the arm of struggling performers.

The second half sags badly as one of the longest on-the-way-to-expiration sequences set on film. Gideon is hospitalized and does his best to ignore all medical advice and march towards his finality. This evolves into a series of mostly tepid hallucinatory musical numbers, Gideon's long goodbye playing out as the filming of a musical movie. Fosse's obsession with death quite naturally sucks the life out of the movie.

The highlights arrive in the form of three performance sequences, all packed into the front end. Soon after the opening credits, the on-stage auditions to the sounds of George Benson's On Broadway capture the sweaty desperation of a large group of dancers trying to land a coveted role in a new show. Later, Gideon jolts his Broadway producers into panic by unveiling a powerfully erotic new ensemble dance, an orgy-on-stage in everything but name, opening new possibilities for what a mile-high club may offer. The final focal point is much more personal: girlfriend Katie and daughter Michelle put on a delightful dance for Gideon in his apartment to the tune of Everything Old Is New Again.

In an inspired piece of casting non-dancer Roy Scheider is a lithe presence as Gideon, conveying an exhausted talent running on fumes but running nonetheless. Fosse's real-life partner Anne Reinking essentially plays herself, and although the role demands little, Jessica Lange is unforgettable as the welcoming spectre of death, a floaty spirit in white shrouds.

All That Jazz acknowledges living and dying as an inseparable couple, delivering a stirring if imperfect dance.

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  1. I love this movie so much for just how ballsy it is. Imagine creating a movie that so fully and completley airs your own dirty laundry, that pulls no punches about yourself in this way. Scheider is tremendous in this--I was always a fan of his, but this is his best performance in my opinion, and that says a great deal.

    The last half hour of All That Jazz is absolutely staggering.

    1. I agree about Scheider - he is a huge part of the film's success. As for the last half hour, I became less interested the more the second half dragged on. It was too long of a long goodbye for me.


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