Classic Movie Review: All That Jazz (1979)

All That Jazz is a semi-autobiographical film about a movie and stage director who is at the height of his career. The pressure and his lifestyle is getting to him so much he develops serious health problems. He won't talk to the people in his life about it, but he will talk to a personification of the angel of death, named Angelique, who fuels his fantasy life and urges him into her embrace. This tiny synopsis is barely an iota of what this film has to offer. It's dense. The film stars Roy Scheider, Jessica Lange, Leland Palmer, and Ann Reinking. Directed an co-written by Bob Fosse.

It's hard to discuss this film without pointing out the obvious influences with another great film 8 1/2 directed by Federico Fellini. 8 1/2 is also about a creative force worried about failure and calling on his rich fantasy life and the women who made him who he is for inspiration. Though, while they share some DNA and the end scene of All That Jazz being an homage of sorts, All That Jazz is wholly the artistic vision of Bob Fosse and how he looks at the world.

It is so much a part of Fosse that the film contains a not so subtle jab at the work of Dustin Hoffman on the film Lenny. There are scenes of Scheider as Gideon, diligently and obsessively editing a film called The Stand-Up, starring the character Davis Newman, played deliciously by Cliff Gorman. It is widely rumored that the rough cut of Lenny was unwatchable because of the terrible performance of Dustin Hoffman. Fosse, as Gideon, played by Scheider all but confirms that it is thanks to his editing that the picture is even palatable. Of course, in the film, the critics in All That Jazz highly praise the performance of Davis Newman as true critics have praised Hoffman. Those same critics go on to deride Gideon's choices as a director and consider his vision a detriment to the film.

In a little bit of something so incredible you would think it was written and not reality, Dustin Hoffman beat Roy Scheider in the Best Actor race at the Oscars that year. Hoffman's film, Kramer vs. Kramer, directed by Robert Benton, also triumphed over All That Jazz and Fosse himself in both Best Picture and Best Director. The only competitive category the two films had that All That Jazz handily won was Best Film Editing. It is a well deserved win.

The film is frenetic in its editing. The cuts are sharp and shape the film from the snippets of the addled mind of a creative, moving faster than the eye can register, but leaving a lasting impression of every frame. That first montage with Joe Gideon's routine of eye drops, Dexedrine (a stimulant), stomach tablets, cigarette, shower and of course his mirror pep talk, "It's showtime, folks!" is so quick and so funny, that when it's repeated throughout the film, you see the wear it's putting on Joe himself to keep up this lifestyle. That thread is built into the narrative and evolves with the story. The bloodshot eyes and the wan, sallow skin becomes so much more apparent as time marches on.

I also love the first scenes with the dancers auditioning as the camera is stationary to watch their movement as one on a stage. Those hundreds being whittled down to dozens as they do the same moves over and over again. The more sent away, the more intricate the audition becomes and we see Joe's power and influence as he has a constant cigarette hung from the side of his lips, taking only the occasional puff. He exudes this confidence in his stride and movement that's engaging to watch.

It's that magnetism that draws us to Joe. Many times the characters we see on screen in other films that abuse their power as much as Joe does are often physically unappealing in someway, but not Joe. He has that muscular dancer's frame and a grace of movement. We can see exactly why these women love him even as he continuously hurts them. He has that way to touch them and see them as they want to be seen and touched. He gives his whole self to this process and to them. Don't get me wrong, he's amoral, ill-tempered and a perfectionist to the point of being cruel, but there's something attractive in that. Especially the way he smiles at them and at us.

The film owes that attraction to Roy Scheider's performance. He's able to capture those facets of unlikeability and channel them into his face and his movements. So many times in this film he has to talk out of the side of his mouth to keep that cigarette in and we get to watch his eyes and his face. The deep lines of hard living are present in every expression, even in his smile. It's masterful to watch him inhabit such a larger than life personality with such a knowledge and intricacy of movement and emotion. Usually with a character like this it's all at a 10, but Scheider knows when to move the needle back just enough.

All That Jazz is filled with music and dancing. It's choreographed and stretched tight as a timpani drum. It's filled with sex appeal and smokiness and a look into the mind of an obsessive perfectionist. It's a movie that not everyone will like. It's divisive in many ways, but if you are ready for it, it's a wild ride worth taking. It's larger than life, daring filmmaking that is rarely seen in major releases today, you should seek out All That Jazz... Then seek out 8 1/2 to compare auteur notes.

I know it's en vogue to stream everything these days. I rented a DVD copy of the Criterion Collection edition of the film from Netflix. Yes, I am the one keeping that service alive, but it is not streaming on any service I know of, likely because of copyrights.

So, you have three options. You could switch your Netflix plan (or your mom and dad's) to allow DVD/Blu Ray rentals, you can visit one of the few remaining video stores (Scarecrow Video in Seattle has three copies available), or you can wait until the Criterion Collection launches their own streaming service this spring and hope it's included in their catalog. This is the conundrum we cinephiles all must face in this brave new world.

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