All That Jazz

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At the end of Cabaret, Sally Bowles sings her cheery, upbeat tune about how "life is a Cabaret" and how high living and good times, music and dancing, sex and drugs and booze, are the only way to get through life. The lingering question at the end of Cabaret is: Is that really a way to get through life, or just a way to end it faster? Director-choreographer Bob Fosse is obviously of two minds on this question, which seems to dominate his brief-but-spectacular film-directing career. Cabaret, Lenny, All That Jazz and Star 80 all perceive Show Business as a kind of pathology, an unhealthy compulsion, a road to ruin. (In Cabaret, it is also hinted that the amoral, self-indulgent performers of Berlin are somehow responsible for the rise of Nazism, which seems like a stretch to me, but indicates how seriously Fosse takes his subject.)

Joe Gideon, the protagonist of All That Jazz, has a clear goal: he wants to die. A life in Show Business has corrupted his soul to the point where he’s incapable of doing anything good, affecting anyone’s life in a positive way, or even enjoying himself. He rushes headlong toward death as the only solid, dependable thing he has left. His marriage has been destroyed and he’s working on destroying his current relationship, he’s involved with so many women that he can’t remember all their names, he doesn’t have enough time to be a father to his daughter, and his work, his art, only brings him pain and frustration.

In order to obtain his goal, Joe crashes headlong through life, rarely looking back at the wreckage he causes. He treats his dancers as children and his child as a dancer. He drinks and smokes and cheats and pops pills and fillsevery waking moment with stimlus and work. Since he constantly works, his life becomes his art — his infidelties become the subject of a dance number, his death-obsession is his movie’s obsession.

In spite of his contempt for almost everyone around him, he nevertheless feels it necessary to be a constant source of entertainment. Show business is his life, it’s his only frame of reference, it’s the lens through which he sees everything (there’s actually a scene where he literally looks at "death" through a camera lens, and large chunks of the movie are consumed with him contemplating death through the medium of film). He can’t deal with anything unless it’s through the artifice of entertainment. Life is entertainment, entertainment is life, to be alive is to entertain. When he hallucinates under anethstesia, what he sees are dance routines and show-stoppers, camera crews and movie studios.

(It makes me sad that Bob Fosse died just as Michael Jackson was becoming a superstar — they would have agreed on so many things.)

I’ve seen this movie dozens of times and I never tire of it. It only gets better. And I’m not even a Broadway musical-theater geek. There is so much to recommend it — Fosse’s editing style, which manages to present every aspect of the scene at once, the incredibly lived-in feel of the scenes and production design, the great lead performance by Roy Scheider, the note-perfect supporting work from a cast of mostly nobodies (or at least nobodies-at-the-time), the great performance by the kid playing the daughter (the only movie she did!), the complex, propulsive narrative that keeps dozens of balls in the air at once until it, of necessity, screeches to a (dead) halt. If there is a better, more honest, more ridiculously watchable movie out there about the lives of show people, I haven’t seen it.

And check out the structure: An 18-minute first act that presents "A Day in the Life of Joe Gideon," where we see him begin the day by whittling a stage full of dancers down to a few lucky kids (and still manages to include a dud in the bunch), then go to the editing suite to work on his new movie, then back home to bed a new dancer and screw up his relationship with his girlfriend. Then the narrative leaps forward in time a few weeks or months, where we see him working on the musical and juggling his personal life. This section of the movie culminates in the stunning "Take Off With Us" number, where we see Gideon’s (and Fosse’s) art boiled down to its essence: he takes his flaws, accentuates them, puts them into his work, points to them, and thus creates great dance that leaps off the screen, flummoxes the squares and endangers the commercial potential of his show.

The show gets closer to previews and the movie gets closer to being done (or further away, depending on how Joe is feeling) and, at 1:06:00, Joe has his first heart attack. He’s put into the hospital but misbehaves — his compulsion to entertain supersedes even his impulse to stay alive. This leads to his second heart attack at 1:21:00 (that is, the natural spot for a second-act break), and an operation, during which he hallucinates an eight-minute-long production number (it may be a coincidence, but Dumbo’s hallucination is also eight minutes long, but then his movie clocks in at a lightning-fast 61 minutes total). He’s alive after the operation, but then "something goes wrong" and he has a third heart attack, during which he has a little bit of a meltdown and runs amok through the hospital. He is put under the knife again, and this time he hallucinates an even longer 10-minute production number. (Kubrick, who gets name-checked mid-way through, put a 12-minute hallucination at the climax of 2001, so Fosse must have felt himself on pretty steady commercial ground. Kubrick’s hallucination didn’t even have dancing!) At which point the movie abruptly ends, with a sucker-punch of a shot that leaves the viewer winded. The whole thing is woven through a long conversation between Joe and "Angelique," which is Jazz‘s idea of Death, which goes from being an interview to a rambling conversation to a seduction and finally an acquiesence.

Act structure? Hard to say. The narrative is punctuated by what I call "the routine," where they show Joe showering, dressing and popping pills in the morning. Each "routine" indicates a new "day" (even though each section does not, and could not, encompass a day). They occur at the beginning of the movie, then at 18:45, 35:00, 44:00 and 1:02:00, after which the device is abandoned since Joe is in the hospital. The "everything at once" editing style seems to apply to the narrative as well, with no obvious three-act structure disernable. And I would say the same thing about Citizen Kane, one of the other movies Jazz has in its sights (as well as, most obviously, 8 1/2). Everything about Jazz indicates that this is "the big one" that an artist has labored long and hard to land, and Fosse at this point sees himself as too important and vital a talent to worry about something as quaint as "act structure."

In the end, all the pain, all the waste, is it all worth it?  In All That Jazz, the show Joe works on is a musical comedy he can’t stand, and the one scene we see from his movie fails to impress.  And yet, in real life, the show and movie Fosse was working on when he had his heart attack (and didn’t die) were Chicago and Lenny, respectively — hardly failures.  But that’s part and parcel with Jazz‘s narrative strategy — it’s a movie about a man who feels that nothing he does is good enough, it’s a movie about failure — total failure, up to and including the failure of the body — told in the most unfailing terms.


9 Responses to “All That Jazz”
  1. craigjclark says:

    I enjoyed this when I watched it a couple years back, but it was so soon after my father’s death that the one can’t help but remind me of the other. For that reason I find it unlikely that I’ll want to revisit it again.

  2. zodmicrobe says:

    I love ALL THAT JAZZ. Love, love, love, LOVE it.

    But wasn’t the original run of CHICAGO a financial disappointment? Or am I just hallucinating that…

  3. notthebuddha says:

    I’d always considered this film a guilty pleasure, but now I don’t feel guilty anymore!

    put a 12-minute hallucination at the climax of 2001

    I am not sure that the stargate sequence is intended to be interpreted as a hallucination, but I can see it being dismissable as one. From what I’ve read of K’s process and your informed opinion of him, I’d have to guess that he made it intentionally incomprehensible to represent the truly alien dimension of Dave Bowman’s experience, but leaned toward the psychedelic to make it easier to slip past the suits of that era.

    • Todd says:

      I like the idea that Kubrick made his message from alien intelligences more palatable to the suits by making it a 12-minute psychedelic lightshow.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Fantastic piece of work, heartbreaking and funny and scary … one of the hardest things to do … they also work in the Ben Vereen routine throughout the piece (or perhaps it’s just the “third act”, when he’s in the hospital, it’s been awhile since I’ve seen it) when he makes fun of cheesy entertainers doing television tributes, only to find himself the star of one in the last dream sequence …

    They show this on AMC often, but it’s so cut up for content and language it’s not worth watching (and it doesn’t lend itself to commercial breaks, either) since it comes off more disjointed. I think most of the final part of COME FLY WITH US is heavily edited.

    But one of my favorite movies, and I ain’t even a fan of Broadway musicials. In a way, neither was Fosse … ain’t that great?

    Joshua James

  5. Todd, we’ve never met; but it’s good to have you back.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I’ve been nuts for this movie ever since it came out, and in many ways it may have influenced me even more than Cabaret. So it’s great to see you take this on.

    I disagree with you, though, that Joe Gideon’s goal is to die. It seems to me that it is to entertain–not just audiences but everyone around him, and most of all himself. He even tries to entertain Death. His headlong rush through life is a pursuit of the stimulation that just brings him more swiftly to The End. Death is the inevitable consequence, not the goal, and he knows that all along. It fascinates him to the point of obsession but doesn’t drive him.


  7. Anonymous says:

    I absolutely adore this film. It was my 1st “adult” movie (age 10) that I actually understood. It nakedly disputes the myth of the mythical artist. The idea that people w/ talent don’t have to take responsibility for their actions, particularly their misdeeds, & in the end all will be forgiven. This movie also completely proved Roy Scheider was an absolutely amazing all around talent, going from roles like “Jaws”, “The French Connection” et al to dancing & singing in “ATJ”.
    Re: Michael Jackson/Bob Fosse– If you’ve ever seen Fosse’s sequence (“A Snake In The Grass”) from “The Little Prince” (the pants, the socks, the fedora, the staccato moves), I think he & Mr Jackson (who cited Fosse as 1 of his many inspirations) had a conversation or 2.

  8. teamwak says:

    Another bloody brilliant film with cracking music.

    Shame Fosse never got to do more films.