#41) All That Jazz (1979)
OR “Joe Biz”
Directed by Bob Fosse
Written by Fosse and Robert Alan Aurthur
Class of 2001
This is a revised and expanded version of my original “All That Jazz” post, which you can read here.
The Plot: Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) is an acclaimed Broadway choreographer turned film director, standing in for this movie’s real-life acclaimed Broadway choreographer turned film director Bob Fosse. An obsessive workaholic, Joe spends his days simultaneously rehearsing his new Broadway show and assembling a final cut of his new movie. Joe is also juggling quality time with his estranged wife/leading lady Audrey Paris (Leland Palmer), his daughter Michelle (Erzsébet Földi), and his girlfriend Kate (Ann Reinking), in addition to his occasional one-night-stands, a pill addiction, a smoking habit, and a flirtation with the mysterious Angelique (Jessica Lange). All of this takes its toll on Joe, who suffers a heart attack one day during rehearsal. “All That Jazz” meditates on death, the price of success, and the lies we tell ourselves and others. Oh, and there’s a bunch of songs in it too.
Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “Felliniesque” and praises the film for “mercilessly reversing the feel-good mood of classical movie musicals.”
But Does It Really?: Oh boy, this is tough. As much as I love “All That Jazz”, I recognize it is an acquired taste, with its morbid energy and inside-baseball look at show business, as well as the cries of narcissism often hurled at this movie. In true Fosse fashion, there’s a lot of “razzle dazzle” to distract the viewer from getting to know the real Joe/Bob, which can alienate viewers looking for a deeper dive. As for its cultural legacy, you rarely see “All That Jazz” get mentioned in modern media, with mainstream references to Fosse distilled down to his signature “jazz hands”. While its NFR standing is somewhat shaky, I’ll give “All That Jazz” a pass as an insight into Bob Fosse (more about that later), and also because despite its flaws, “Jazz” still manages to engage and entertain 40 years later.
Everybody Gets One: Most of the supporting cast were Broadway performers/previous Fosse collaborators. Among them: Ben Vereen (the original Leading Player in “Pippin“), Leland Palmer (also from “Pippin”), Cliff Gorman (seen here as a Lenny Bruce-esque stand-up a la Fosse’s “Lenny“), and Ann Reinking (several Fosse productions, as well as his girlfriend for most of the ’70s).
Seriously, Oscars?: While “All That Jazz” divided critics and audiences, the Academy ate it up, with “Jazz” tying “Kramer vs. Kramer” for most nominations at the 1980 Oscars (9). “Kramer” was the night’s big winner, but “Jazz” took home four trophies: Art Direction, Costume Design, Film Editing, and Adapted Score.
- In late 1974, Bob Fosse suffered a heart attack while editing his film “Lenny” and rehearsing the musical “Chicago”. After recuperating, Fosse began work with writer Robert Alan Aurthur on a script based on the Hilma Wolitzer novel “Ending”. The novel’s themes of death and grief served as the inspiration for what eventually became “All That Jazz”.
- This film’s production was filled with setbacks. Richard Dreyfuss was originally cast as Joe Gideon, but bowed out shortly after rehearsals began. At the time, Dreyfuss cited exhaustion as his reason for departing, though later admitted he had creative differences with Fosse. Roy Scheider was brought in as a replacement, and production was pushed back a few months. During filming, co-writer/co-producer Robert Alan Aurthur died of lung cancer. Before filming wrapped, the film went over-budget (from $6 million to $9.5 million), and Columbia refused to give the film the additional $500,000 it needed to film its finale. In a Hail Mary move, executive producer Daniel Melnick showed a rough cut to 20th Century Fox, who agreed to co-finance the film in exchange for distribution rights and sharing the profits with Columbia. Surprisingly, Fosse seemed in good health during all of this, joking that he had cut his smoking habit down to “five packs a day”.
- On paper, Roy Scheider seems an odd choice for Joe (even Fosse had to be convinced), but once you see the final film, it makes sense. In a departure from his more action-oriented filmography, Scheider is quite charming and personable, two necessary traits if your audience is to sympathize with a workaholic womanizer. And of course Fosse’s autobiographical proxy has a full head of hair.
- I’ve theorized that most movie quotes become famous because they are repeated throughout their film. “It’s showtime, folks” may be the exception. Joe says it several times while looking in his bathroom mirror, but does anyone ever recreate that moment in their own home nowadays? Just me?
- The opening montage of Joe’s dance audition is pretty wonderful, masterfully cut to George Benson’s cover of “On Broadway”. It ends with my favorite line in the movie: “That’s how you get a job.”
- Jessica Lange’s film career was just starting when she did “All That Jazz” (though she had already been raked across the coals for the “King Kong” remake). She is everything Angelique calls for: using her beauty and seduction to lure Joe towards the darkness. Lange was also occasionally romantically linked to Fosse around this time. Speaking of…
- Shout out to Ann Reinking, who is not only playing a character in a relationship similar to her real-life one with Fosse, but was willing to play the part after they had broken up AND still had to audition for it.
- One of the reasons I’m going easy on “All That Jazz” is because theater, by its very nature, is difficult to preserve. The National Recording Registry has many iconic cast albums among its ranks, and the NFR has several film adaptations of theater pieces, but a genuine theatrical experience is near impossible to preserve (bootlegs be damned). The next best thing is to preserve the creative process, and “All That Jazz” represents Fosse and his method. It’s not a one-to-one encapsulation (Ann Reinking repeatedly commented over the years that Joe Gideon was far worse than the real Fosse), but it’s as close as we’ll ever get to understanding one of the most influential figures in 20th century theater.
- “All That Jazz” is one of the rare NFR movies to be nominated for a Stinkers Bad Movie Award: Worst Supporting Actor for Max Wright. Sure, the character’s a bit grating, but among the worst performances of the year? Please, the dad from “ALF” deserves better.
- Erzsébet Földi makes a strong film debut as Joe’s daughter Michelle. She succeeds at being an actual kid rather than an adult’s approximation of a kid. She’s like if Quinn Cummings from “The Goodbye Girl” had ballet training. Side note: Fosse’s real life daughter Nicole makes a quick cameo as one of the dancers in “NY/LA”.
- Leland Palmer makes a good stand-in for Fosse’s real life wife Gwen Verdon, although she’s about 15 years too young for the part. Palmer even sounds like Verdon in a few instances, especially when she sings.
- “Take Off With Us” is what Fosse does best: turning a simple, catchy song into an overly sexual production number. And it goes on a lot longer than I remember; a full eight minutes!
- Hot take: I’m on the fence about whether or not this movie is actually a musical. Initially, my argument was that the songs don’t progress the story the way they would in a traditional musical, and that before the finale there are only two numbers performed by the characters. On the other hand, if my argument is that the songs are too diegetic to be a musical, where does that put Fosse’s “Cabaret“, in which every song is performed as it would in real life? I’m still undecided, but I’m leaning towards classifying “All That Jazz” as a “movie with music” rather than a full-blown musical.
- The film’s other pre-finale number: Kate and Michelle dancing to Peter Allen’s “Everything Old Is New Again”. It’s a sweet moment in the movie, and the only time Joe actually allows himself to experience joy.
- I get the sense that Joe/Fosse doesn’t hate show business, but rather the people in it. Everyone outside his close circle is a nuisance: Ben Vereen’s fake entertainer, Max Wright’s demanding movie producer, Anthony Holland’s showy composer, John Lithgow’s envious director. That’s a lot of one-note caricatures for such a nuanced character study.
- In the subgenre of NFR movies you shouldn’t watch after eating: Fosse filmed an actual open heart surgery to show Joe’s operation, and it is unsparingly graphic. This is interspersed with a scene of the producers discussing the financial implications if Joe were to die on the operating table. And…is that Wallace Shawn as the insurance man? Huh. Forgot about that.
- And CCH Pounder too? Who isn’t in this movie?
- Oh man, that finale. Ann and Leland (as well as Erzsébet) finally show off some big dance moves, culminating with Roy Scheider and Ben Vereen’s duet of “Bye Bye Life” (a minimally rewritten “Bye Bye Love”). It is one of filmdom’s longer finales, but Fosse ties everything together nicely. My main gripe: you spend the whole movie without seeing Roy Scheider sing or dance and when he finally does, it’s kind of a letdown. At least Sam Rockwell busted a few moves in “Fosse/Verdon”.
- I dunno Fosse, I don’t think I believe that “all characters are fictitious” disclaimer during the credits. Seems a little too coincidental for my tastes…
- After its initial theatrical run, “All That Jazz” took a backseat to Fosse’s more famous work (“Cabaret” et al). The film, however, is not without its fans (apparently Stanley Kubrick loved it), and still gets the occasional shout out from movie buffs like me.
- Whenever “All That Jazz” is directly referenced in pop culture, it’s usually just the title, or a quoting of the aforementioned “It’s showtime” line. The latter has been repeated in such shows as “Better Call Saul”, “Family Guy”, and “American Horror Story” (do you think Jessica Lange noticed?).
- The making of “All That Jazz” is touched upon in the limited series “Fosse/Verdon” (though mainly just how self-referential it was). Series producer Lin-Manuel Miranda makes a cameo as Roy Scheider.
- Bob Fosse only directed one more film after “All That Jazz”: the 1983 drama “Star 80”. This made “Jazz” Fosse’s last musical film. Fosse died in 1987 of a heart attack on his way to the opening of his “Sweet Charity” revival. Fosse’s legacy has carried on since his passing, and a revival of “Chicago” (choreographed by Ann Reinking in Fosse’s style) has been playing on Broadway for the last 25 years.
Further Reading: Robert Alan Aurthur was posthumously nominated for two Oscars for “All That Jazz”, and his daughter Kate wrote this article recounting her experience attending the ceremony with her mother as his proxy.
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