All That Jazz (1979) – A wild ride through Bob Fosse’s phantasmagoric imagination

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In many respects, Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz is a lot similar to Martin Scorsese’s 2004 film The Aviator. Both films are biopics and are about eccentric characters who get a kick out of juggling multiple careers and eventually damage themselves both physical and mentally through overexertion. All That Jazz is apparently a semi-autobiographical look at Fosse’s own life. He paints a very flamboyant and exaggerated portrait of himself here yet somehow manages to make it an unflattering one. Fosse was was a dancer, choreographer, Broadway director and also a filmmaker. Fosse’s alter-ego is named Joe Gideon and is played effortlessly and confidently by Roy Scheider who was at the peak of his career in the 1970s. It is real life played out as fiction.

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I think this is the only example of a film that also served as someone’s prediction of his own death. It is self-destruction given the epic treatment. I don’t think everyone would find it easy to appreciate this film. Fosse’s style is uniquely different and not something that can be digested in just one viewing. In a brilliantly edited opening sequence, Gideon is shown popping Dexedrine pills, putting eye drops, looking into the mirror and saying: “It’s showtime, folks!” all set to the tune of Vivaldi’s “Concerto for Strings and Continuo”which is then followed by another wonderfully edited sequence showing him choreographing his dancers on a stage. This sequence is accompanied by George Benson’s “On Broadway”. In the meantime, he is also working on the editing of his latest film, a biopic of a famed stand-up comedian (which obviously is Lenny, starring Dustin Hoffman). The film is way behind schedule. He also drinks and smokes heavily.

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He is simultaneously having imaginary conversations with the Angel of Death named Angelique (played by Jessica Lange). These conversations have a flirtatious tone (flirting with death?) and are played out as sequences separate from the rest of the film. He has a wife and a small daughter but that doesn’t stop him from indulging in excessive womanizing. All of these contribute to a tremendous amount of pressure on his health and his condition deteriorates day by day. Some of the sequences seem to be taking place in the real world while the rest seem to be taking place entirely inside his head. Just imagine all the jumbled thoughts that you are experiencing right now and gather them all together and turn them into a screenplay. That’s exactly what All that Jazz.  It’s a wild ride through the phantasmagoric theme park that is his imagination.  This is a film that constantly brings attention to the way it is edited and should be made compulsory learning for anyone who is planning on becoming a film editor. If Godard invented jump cuts, then Boorman and Fosse has done something else entirely.

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There is also a strong influence of Fellini’s 8 1/2. The dance numbers are erotically charged and there is an open-heart surgery scene that might make you wince. Despite the presence of musical numbers, it’s not a full-on musical. The final musical number is my favorite. It’s energetic, spectacularly choreographed and staged. The film is driven by Scheider’s fantastic energy and this is the actor at his most unrestrained. We’ve never seen him in a role like this before. For someone who is mostly known for his tough guy roles in films like The French Connection, Jaws and Sorcerer, this role marks a significant departure. The film is one of Kubrick’s favorites. He once remarked: “This is the best film I think I have ever seen.”

 

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