“This is the feverish, painful expression of a man who lives in mortal fear of his own mediocrity,” concludes Dave Kehr’s negative Chicago Reader review of All That Jazz, Bob Fosse’s penultimate directorial feature. And it certainly is — that’s what makes it so glorious. Indeed, the film (which would go on to win the Palme d’Or in 1980, after opening theatrically in December of 1979) is easily identified as Fosse’s reworking of his experience editing 1974’s Lenny while simultaneously staging a Broadway production of Chicago. But what elevates All That Jazz above mere portrait-of-an-artist navel-gazing is the unsparing degree to which it examines its Great Artist protagonist, Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider, in one of the finest performances of his career), to say nothing of the film’s intoxicating editing rhythms and phantasmagoric textures. The eight-minute opening sequence alone, which observes stage director Gideon casting his latest production, is a perfect short film, as thrilling as the vaunted opening of Fellini’s 8½, the picture’s clear point of reference. In mere minutes, the preternaturally talented Fosse distills what might take a lesser director about thrice as much time to convey. Really, the entire film is a marvel of such compression, bending time according to its own internal logic, and unfolding in a warped, eternal present. It’s almost as if we watch Gideon refashion his experiences even as they’re occuring.
What elevates All That Jazz above mere portrait-of-an-artist navel-gazing is the unsparing degree to which it examines its Great Artist protagonist.
In that regard, perhaps it’s useful to view Fosse’s methods in opposition to, say, those of his contemporary John Cassavetes, whose backstage-drama Opening Night was made just before All That Jazz. More rigorously constructed than improvisatory, Fosse’s film certainly aligned with then-contemporary tastes more than Opening Night. (The former garnered nine Academy Award nominations, while the latter wasn’t officially distributed in the United States until 1991.) But it’s no less thrilling or incisive for its ostensible concessions to popular entertainment. In fact, it’s Fosse’s undeniable mastery of show-biz artifice that makes All That Jazz such a compelling experience: from Gideon’s manically edited, Vivaldi-scored morning rituals, to the seductive “Air-otica” performance, memorable for its methodical shift from money-making crowdpleaser to erotic spectacle. (“I think we just lost the family audience,” one studio exec remarks as the dancers begin to strip and engage in a kind of pansexual, meticulously choreographed orgy.) Fosse would explore a darker, more tragic vision of stardom in his follow-up, Star 80. But make no mistake: his touch is no less lacerating or caustic here. One need only look to the scene at around the film’s midpoint — a table read conveyed in snatches of anxiety-inducing sound, during which Gideon suffers a heart attack — to figure out where Fosse comes down on that business we call show.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.