There aren’t a lot of movies like All That Jazz. This is a story about a director frantically trying to balance his frustrations with his latest production with his personal problems with women. A story set in a somewhat cynical world of show business, where the producers seem nice until you realize all that matters to them is money. A story that seamlessly blends reality with fantasy to help you better understand the main character. Yeah, it’s almost a totally unique story, except for the fact that it sounds exactly like 8½, Birdman, and even Singing in the Rain.
All That Jazz is a semi-autobiographical musical released in 1979 and directed by Bob Fosse. I mention the year because there are some obvious, topical connections the movie makes to Fosse’s life at that time. The title, “All That Jazz,” comes from the musical Chicago, which Fosse was involved in and first debuted in 1975. Joe Gideon, Roy Scheider’s stand-in for Fosse, is dating a woman named Katie played by Ann Reinking, Fosse’s actual girlfriend at the time. And Joe is also editing a movie about a stand up comic throughout All That Jazz, which is surely a reference to Lenny, the Lenny Bruce movie Fosse made with Dustin Hoffman a few years prior.
I hope the real Fosse took it a little easier than Gideon does, but I kind of doubt it. The film establishes early on that Gideon’s life is in a precarious condition, as we see him run between casting his new musical, editing his latest film (which is months late and over budget), and taking care of his daughter (or neglecting to). The only way he can keep up with it all is a morning regiment of eye drops, Alka-Seltzer, and Dexedrine, followed by non-stop chain smoking and sex with whoever he can find. It’s exhausting, and it’s taking a toll on him, as he quickly finds himself pissing off his daughter, Michelle (Erzsébet Földi), his ex-wife, Audrey, (Leland Palmer), and the aforementioned girlfriend, Katie.
Eventually Joe succumbs to his unsustainable lifestyle and has a heart attack during a table read. As more and more obstacles begin to pile on him, Joe never loses his sense of fun and flare for the dramatic, or his desire to smoke cigarettes and drink booze. So he hits on nurses, has parties in his private room, and makes plans for when he gets out of the hospital. But if he doesn’t change his ways, why would the hospital ever release him?
I think part of why I liked All That Jazz more than 8½ is that Joe’s egomaniacal ways are presented in a negative light, it’s clear from the get-go that this dude sucks and is going to kill himself if he doesn’t change. It’s not that Joe’s unlikable, but he clearly has no defense for his bad behaviors. When Katie calls him out on his womanizing ways, he tells her bluntly that while he can go out with anyone he wants she must remain faithful to him. When he’s in the hospital, Joe’s doctors make it very clear that he’s really sick and he just ignores them. All the bullshit, everything bad that happens, it’s Joe’s fault and no one else’s.
You’ve got to give All That Jazz this though: it’s a musical where the lead character hardly sings or dances. A musical, that happy-go-lucky genre, full of sex, nudity, drugs, booze, and a graphic scene of open heart surgery. A musical about how show business is total bullshit, an industry where artists suffer and the rich get richer and where the ending is a real downer. Whatever else there is out there, there’s nothing quite like All That Jazz.