Biopics tend to get a bad rap and for good reason as it can be close to impossible to fit an individual’s entire life into two hours of film. However, when something like Bob Fosse’s “auto-biopic” comes along, it throws conventional criticism of the genre out the window. All That Jazz, a thinly veiled autobiographical telling of Fosse’s life, is like no film you have ever seen before; a ‘musical that isn’t a musical’ that’s both visually and thematically stunning with towering production values and performances from all involved.
All That Jazz tells the story of Broadway/Film director Joe Gideon, played by Roy Scheider in a career best performance, as he simultaneously juggles directing a musical, editing a film, a crippling pill addiction and multiple women all while recalling his entire life to the Angel of Death. If that sounds like it’s all too much to take in on one viewing, it isn’t. Fosse’s direction makes everything apparent and easy to follow as he intertwines stunning visuals that don’t regulate themselves to the numerous dream sequences. This is a gorgeous film throughout thanks to Fosse’s keen eye and Giuseppe Rotunno’s Oscar nominated cinematography, aided by the director’s signature choreography, especially in the rehearsal sequence for a scandalous musical number that is the centerpiece of the film.
Gideon’s discussions with Death, a stunning Jessica Lange, though jarring at first become second nature and a window into Gideon/Fosse’s past. Like every other woman in Gideon’s life, he flirts with Death both metaphorically and literally. Gideon is a force to be reckoned with and from the way the film tells it, Death, or at least the fear of Death, is the only thing that can possibly keep him in check. It never does though, since even when he’s in a hospital bed he’s still flirting, smoking and working on his two productions. Nothing can stop this man from producing art and like most tortured souls it does indeed take its toll.
Though he does carry the bulk of the film, this isn’t just the Roy Scheider show, the cast that surrounds him is stellar as well. Leland Palmer is great as Gideon’s ex-wife and mother to his child, playing the lead in the Broadway production. There’s a sadness and dedication in her performance that mirrors Fosse’s real-life ex-wife Gwen Verdon’s situation at the time. In terms of the supporting actors, Ann Reinking might be the best on display here. Playing Gideon’s live-in girlfriend, Kate Jagger, she clearly is pulling a lot from her personal experiences, since at the time she was Bob Fosse’s real-life girlfriend. Her arc is heartbreaking at times as she’s clearly playing herself and is outmatched by Gideon’s towering personality and ego.
It’s almost shocking to watch a 35 year old film that has such a brisk pace, predating the quick-cuts of Edgar Wright and Tarantino’s films by decades. Alan Heim, who had previously worked with the director on Lenny and would edit Star 80 (Fosse’s final film), won a well deserved Oscar for All That Jazz. Seeing as how this was up against a power-house like Apocalypse Now, it’s quite telling that Heim’s then unheard-of edits were recognized as revolutionary even at the time. It’s a key part of the experience and will leave a strong impression on anyone even the least bit interested in filmmaking.
Much has been written about how this movie along with Cabaret, for which Fosse won Best Director, are his crowning achievements as a filmmaker and it’s difficult to dispute that fact. I for one would have to side with All That Jazz as the better of the two since it comes from a far more personal space and isn’t an adaptation of a previous work. This is a legendary film and for a reason, though fanciful at times it all seems real, almost too real. Scheider knocks it out of the park with one of the best screen performances of all time and although he’s not the most likable character, you definitely feel for him towards the end of the picture.
The movie begins with Gideon’s morning routine which ends with his mantra, “It’s showtime, folks.” It’s a scene that recurs throughout the film, each time faster than the last (matching Gideon’s deterioration), as a sort of affirmation, Gideon and therefore Fosse are constantly putting on a show that they hope can get them through the day. This also brings into discussion that perhaps Fosse was a little too easy on himself with All That Jazz, as by most accounts he was even worse than Gideon when it came to his vices when he was in his prime. In the end that’s of little consequence as the end result is one of the best films of the 1970’s and the pinnacle of Bob Fosse’s brilliance as a director.