There is no other movie like All That Jazz (1979). To watch director-choreographer Bob Fosse’s penultimate film is to enter Fosse’s own mid-life crisis, played out in song and dance, including a startling prediction of his fatal heart attack eight years later. The film — which is being released on Blu-ray and DVD today in a spiffy new Criterion Collection edition — follows its main character, Joe Gideon (a fictionalized version of Fosse played by Roy Scheider), as he weighs his life’s work against the inevitability of death and the elusiveness of love. This is dark, weighty material, but as you can see from the exclusive, newly restored Criterion clip (above), Fosse makes it exhilarating by using the full vocabulary of his two primary languages: film and dance.
In Jazz, Scheider is a narcissistic director working on two simultaneous projects. The first is a Broadway-bound musical plagued by financial and artistic disagreements; the second is a documentary about a stand-up comedian, clearly based on Fosse’s 1974 docudrama Lenny. Gideon is a relentless perfectionist who can’t stop re-editing the film and re-choreographing the show, and he keeps up his creative energy with a vicious pill-and-booze habit. His self-destructive tendencies are more apparent in his personal life, where his constant womanizing stands between him and the people who love him (including Ann Reinking as his girlfriend; Leland Palmer as his long-suffering ex-wife; and Erzsebet Foldi as his daughter). Throughout the film, Fosse jumps back and forth between Gideon’s work, scenes from his personal life, and his surreal dialogues with a woman in white (played by Jessica Lange), who represents some combination of God and death. As the end draws near, the film’s kaleidoscopic story coheres into a series of hallucinations — musical numbers being staged in the synapses of Gideon’s brain. One of these is shown in the clip above: while Gideon lies in a hospital bed, the sound of his heart monitor and ventilator become the percussion to the song “You Better Change Your Ways” (a chastising rewrite of the jazz standard “There’ll Be Some Changes Made”), performed in his mind by his girlfriend, ex-wife, and daughter.
The true innovations of the film lie in Fosse’s storytelling techniques. First of all, there’s his use of dance as a means to illuminate his character. Gideon’s risky creative sensibilities are revealed in a dance number called “Air-otica,” a stylish musical-theater piece about flight attendants that descends into a choreographed orgy, much to the shock of his Broadway backers. Even now, the scene inspires equal parts discomfort and arousal: Fosse having the same effect on his actual audience that Gideon has on his fictional one. Gideon’s relationships, meanwhile, are illustrated by the women in his life literally dancing around him. The director’s heart-to-heart with his young daughter, set to ballet moves, is juxtaposed with a remarkable scene of Palmer confronting him about his infidelities, dancing all the while.
Then there is Fosse’s choice to let his story unfold in non-linear time. Scenes from Gideon’s past and present appear out of order, side by side with his angel-of-death conversations and choreographed hallucinations. Sometimes they fade into one another; objects from his apartment appear in the empty-stage set of the Lange scenes, or a vision of his aproned mother cooking at the stove appears in a burlesque club he worked at during his teenage years. All of this is punctuated by a repeating, fast-cut sequence of Gideon’s daily bathroom routine: Vivaldi, Visine, Alka seltzer, shower, Dexedrine before Gideon shouts — and later wheezes — his catchphrase: “It’s showtime, folks!”
Even though All That Jazz won four Oscars and received five additional nods (including Best Picture), it has become somewhat of a forgotten classic to moviegoers. Not so for filmmakers. A New York Times article from 2009 names Steven Soderbergh and Wes Anderson among the directors who have imitated All That Jazz’s unique story structure. Sofia Coppola included an homage to the Gideon’s daily routine, Vivaldi and all, in Marie Antoinette. Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing has a similar stylized shower shot. David Fincher paid tribute to the “Air-otica” sequence early in his career when he directed Paula Abdul’s “Cold Hearted” video. Contemporary movie musicals like Dancer in the Dark and Chicago have used Fosse’s technique of layering gritty reality with theatrical fantasy. But nobody ever did it better than he did in All That Jazz. It’s a movie that deserves to be re-discovered, and hopefully the Criterion release will turn the spotlight on this one-of-kind musical.