On the surface, the movie is the autobiographical story of Fosse going through a physical/emotional breakdown during the making of the original stage version of Chicago in the mid-1970s. Roy Scheider plays the Fosse stand-in, Joe Gideon, as a pill-popping, compulsively womanizing, perfectionist, son of a bitch who finds happiness only in his work. But Fosse rips apart the standard showbiz puff piece right from the start, by dropping viewers right into the frenzied mess of Gideon's life, and mixing up the already-fractured storyline with a recurring sequence where Gideon talks over his life with a glowing, radiant Muse figure (Jessica Lange).
In a squirmy bit of verisimilitude, Ann Reinking - a longtime Fosse dancer/worshipper who was not only his mistress for years while he was married to dancer Gwen Verdon, but also won a Tony for her choreography of the Chicago stage remake in 1990 - plays Gideon's primary girlfriend, who he goes back to when he's not sleeping with chorus girls or ignoring his ex-wife. Sharp-eyed viewers will spot John Lithgow and Wallace Shawn in small roles.
But even though Fosse could be called one of the last great visionaries of the Broadway stage, he presents Gideon here as an unpretentious sort who worked in Chicago strip clubs as a kid and just wants to do good work. It's a tough piece of self-examination, in which Gideon does horrible, selfish things to those around him, all for the sake of his work in film and theater, which seems to be the only thing keeping him alive. All That Jazz literally cracks open Gideon's life, a metaphor brutally realized when he finally collapses under the stress of working on the play and editing his last movie (which looks here like it's supposed to be his 1974 Lenny Bruce film, Lenny) and we see his open heart surgery - not a pretty sight.
Fosse was never a neat-and-tidy director, and All That Jazz is definitely one of his messier creations. Overflowing with half-conceived ideas, the thing consumes itself even as it unspools. We hear a critic's review of the film that Gideon was compulsively re-editing for months, which talks about how Gideon has good material and good ideas, but his habits of cutting things off mid-stream and always being too desperate to entertain (cut to Gideon facing himself in the mirror: "It's showtime!") ruin the film. It's a classic Fosse move that illustrates the film's conundrum of being a stutterstep between wanting to entertain everyone with a blazing showcase of razzle-dazzle and then jumping back to show the seamy underbelly of the showbiz world.
The final musical number is a perfect illustration of this schizophrenia. Gideon and O'Connor Flood (an irritating Ben Vereen) dance about, singing a heart-rending number about accepting death that's undercut by tacky, flashy staging which seems to have been designed in the seventh circle of disco hell. The conclusion is chillingly matter-of-fact and has eerie resonance with the circumstances surrounding Fosse's own death in 1987.
As an examination of an artist at war with himself and unable to ever quite finish a piece of work, Fosse outdoes Fellini here: it's 8 1/2 with a pounding heartbeat. Narcissistic and self-indulgent to a fault, it's also like nothing you've ever seen before and probably never will again. Not only do they not make them like Fosse anymore, today's audiences and the industry also don't tend to reward this kind of experimentation: All That Jazz was nominated for nine Academy Awards in 1980 (including best actor, director, and picture) and won four.
The Fox DVD features a bright, sharp picture transfer, interview and commentary with Roy Scheider, and some interesting clips of a balding, nervous Fosse directing "On Broadway," the big number that opens the film.
Run time: 123 mins
In Theaters: Thursday 20th December 1979
Box Office Worldwide: $37.8M
Production compaines: Columbia Pictures Corporation, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 88%
Fresh: 29 Rotten: 4
IMDB: 7.8 / 10
Director: Bob Fosse
Starring: Roy Scheider as Joe Gideon, Jessica Lange as Angelique, Leland Palmer as Audrey Paris, Ann Reinking as Kate Jagger, Ben Vereen as O'Connor Flood, Cliff Gorman as Davis Newman, Erzsebet Foldi as Michelle, Michael Tolan as Dr. Ballinger, Max Wright as Joshua Penn, William LeMassena as Jonesy Hecht, Irene Kane as Leslie Perry (as Chris Chase), Deborah Geffner as Victoria, Kathryn Doby as Kathryn, Anthony Holland as Paul Dann, Robert Hitt as Ted Christopher, David Margulies as Larry Goldie, Sue Paul as Stacy, Keith Gordon as Young Joe, Frankie Man as Comic, Alan Heim as Eddie, John Lithgow as Lucas Sergeant, Sandahl Bergman as Principal Dancer "Airotica" Sequence, C. C. H. Pounder as Nurse Blake, Wallace Shawn as Assistant Insurance Man