I suspect there's a large portion of the film-loving world whose instinctual response to the idea of Bob Fosse's All That Jazz, a musical about a guy who choreographs musicals, is an automatic "bleh." Musicals remain a can't-get-no-respect arena for many 10-ft-pole-wielding moviegoers, and it's not like the biopic is anyone's favorite genre either. But what if I said this was the movie from which Darren Aronofsky lifted Requiem for a Dream's "getting high" montage? That it's a remake of Fellini's 8½? That this movie shared the Palme D'Or with a Kurosawa movie? And that it's from the director who won Best Director the year that Coppola didn't for The Godfather? What if I told you it only had one "fantasy" musical number, and that the rest was (with the exception of one montage) as naturally occurring as Once? What if I just told you it had a lot of boobs in it, including one played by the dad from Alf? Whatever it takes to convince you see this, pretend that I said it, because movie fans snub All That Jazz at their own risk. It's got everything we go to the movies to see -- drama, comedy, characters that behave like humans and have human problems, spectacle, sex, death, and all that jazz.
It never occurred to me until now how All That Jazz, which I just used to mean "et cetera," functions as a sort of diminutive title, the same way that "little" curdles "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." The other reason for using it, of course, is for the name recognition, because it's a song from Chicago, whose Broadway run was choreographed by the polymath Fosse at the same time that he was also making Lenny, a movie about the life of Lenny Bruce. And, lo, Fosse's All That Jazz is about Joe Gideon (an incendiary Roy Scheider), who is choreographing a tony Broadway musical while making a movie called The Stand-Up.
Yes, All That Jazz is not just a biopic but an autobiopic, and it's also an autohagiography to boot. Sure, most directors with strong personalities end up telling us a lot about themselves in the movies they make even if they are not explicitly the subject of those movies, and those things can be both self-flattering and self-critical. But to do it and to be the subject of the movie is a kind of ballsiness you want to call unique, although of course it's been done before, like with Fellini's 8½ ... which, as I mentioned, this is something of a remake of. So it's an autobiohagiography remake of a Fellini film. The hubris alone goggles you.
But All That Jazz lives up to it. The movie's framing device is Gideon's flirtatious dreamspace conversations with a white-clad woman who we come to realize is death incarnate, and these conversations comment on the ongoing story of Gideon as he juggles these projects and their associated business partners, as well as a girlfriend, ex-wife and daughter, plus assorted other consorts. For the most part the world bends to Gideon's will -- every woman he wants to bed is game, even with everyone acknowledging it might be for less than savory reasons; his business partners (and ex-wife, who is a stage performer) regard everything he does as some kind of genius; his girlfriend gets along well enough with his teenage daughter for them to team up to surprise him ... it's a happy fantasia of a life.
The source of most of Gideon's angst is that he gets what he wishes, and, no matter what drug cocktail he wakes himself up with, there's not enough of him to go around. ("I just wish you weren't so generous with your cock," his girlfriend laments.) But moreover, he has to contend with the vagaries of the real world, beyond just justifying the affections of his bevy of bedmates. He's way over budget editing The Stand-Up, but every new pass makes it a little better, and if it's a hit it will justify the expense. The musical he's choreographing looks poised to be a smash, but it's also a banal confection about an airline crew that is, at some level, unworthy of his talents. So while that's self-aggrandizing, it's also a cri de coeur.
By the same token, you don't have to look deep to see the ways in which Fosse is very self-critical. He knows he's a cad who's largely unworthy of the women he neglects and cognizant of the harm he deals them. He calls himself, in a roundabout way, "a so-so entertainer and not much of a humanitarian." He knows his business partners' interest in him is strictly monetary and without real affection, and yet he has no other companionship that doesn't involve sex.
The centerpiece of the first two-thirds of the movie is when Gideon, stymied by his inability to choreograph a ditty about stewardesses in any way that satisfies him, debuts an alternate take -- he does the song with the salaciousness turned up to 11, and the funders are gleeful about how it toes its PG-13 line, but then he segues into a follow-up which pairs off his six dancers into three faux-copulating pairs, which then devolves into nothing less than an orgy. ("Don't forget about our group fun-fun-fun plan!") As this peters out and the dancers portray parting and recrimination, Gideon takes this mic: "Our motto is: We take you anywhere, but get you nowhere." While it's clearly too far beyond the pale to be staged on Broadway, it's equally clearly a passionate outpouring from Fosse/Gideon's heart -- the model of what he would do if he were truly untrammeled, and he was probably never less trammeled than in the making of All That Jazz. Gideon's ex-wife watches the number, understanding everything that Gideon is trying to express in the number about his attitudes toward life and sex, and says, "I think it's the best work you've ever done, you son of a bitch," before storming off.
So is that self-aggrandizing? I can't say. It's a tour de force, to be sure. The capper on Fosse's hubris is that he gives Gideon a heart attack and lays him up in a hospital for the movie's last act, where (can we agree since the movie is 30 years old this isn't a spoiler?) he eventually dies. So not only does Fosse get to tell this multimillion version dollar of his life, but he gets to attend his own funeral, too. Well, a figurative funeral -- Joe, dying on the operating table, has a fever dream of putting on one last show, bittersweetly serenaded by his ex-wife, girlfriend and daughter and then softshoeing it with Ben Vereen singing "Bye bye life/ bye bye happiness/ hello loneliness/ I think I'm gonna die."
Fosse -- who did die of a heart attack eight years after All That Jazz -- was an incredibly talented film director, alive to performance and sound and editing rhythms in a way that can't simply be written off by saying that he comes from musical theater. The majesty of this movie is unparalleled in the past 30 years of musicals; something like Chicago, which helped make Fosse's name the first time around, seems incredibly limp when compared to the energy, mania and, as one friend put it, Martianness of All That Jazz. Even Moulin Rouge! seems a little tepid in comparison. All That Jazz is a milestone in personal filmmaking on a Hollywood budget, and a hellzapoppin' ride.
Dane101, April 6, 2009