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Home / Film / Feature Articles / What’s Your Answer, Chum? Are You Gonna Come? Narcissism, narcotics, nicotine and nihilism in All That Jazz (1979)

What’s Your Answer, Chum? Are You Gonna Come? Narcissism, narcotics, nicotine and nihilism in All That Jazz (1979)

ALL THAT JAZZ (20th Century-Fox / Columbia, 1979)

Bob Fosse’s semi-autobiographical All that Jazz is a masterpiece of seventies cinema, a pillar of New Hollywood, and a testament to this multi-talented artist’s genius. As Fosse delves into life, sex, art, death and “all that jazz”, we bear witness to one of the most enigmatic but equally tortured and dedicated madmen ever presented on the silver screen. As devastating and as sometimes depressing the film is, it is also one of the most important portrayals of an artist driven and consumed by his work. Fosse’s complex love letter to death is one of the most life affirming (yet still grueling and bleak) works of masochistic invention. This gifted dancer with many demons used his own insecurities (his short stature, his hunched back, his early balding and his pigeon toes) to create a distinct style and aesthete in the world of dance and movement, and holds up a large ballet-hall mirror to themes of sexual promiscuity, a rejection of monogamy, the estrangement from family, addiction, personal defeats and triumphs and the overwhelming desire for perfection. The film is an exercise in brilliance and never for one moment is it self-indulgent or bloated. It is a creepy shadowy film that dances with death only to sweep you along with its nihilism, taking delight in being somber, depressing and downright sinister. Bob Fosse reveled in the darkness: he embodied the lecherous and lascivious, and his joy in celebrating the grit and the menace is all packed into All That Jazz.

As the film’s protagonist, choreographer and director Joe Gideon (Roy Schieder) goes through dance routine after dance routine, woman after woman and addiction after addiction. He gets closer to dying, and in a sense it is only in death where he doesn’t feel he has to prove himself, perfect anything or even run through a sweaty, grueling rehearsal. Bob Fosse has created a musical about having a heart attack at surface level, but what goes and comes before it is one of the most intricate, complicated and unnerving experiences ever put to film.

Alan Heim’s phenomenal editing drives the picture, and his eye for detail and systematic understanding of the complexities of kinetic action maneuvers the film. Plotted within the structure of the piece is a ritual as performed by Joe, where Heim’s splicing highlights the vices and their results in a speedy and startling manner. Joe chain-smokes, so when he has a lit cigarette go out under the flowing water of a shower it makes sense and highlights addiction at all cost. Then we cut to speed pills being taken, drops flushing out bloodshot and overworked eyes and then finally a coughing, unwell workaholic cynically presenting jazz hands announcing “It’s show time folks!” In these frenetic choppy moments we get an insight into both the character of Joe, the routine outside of the routines that take place up on stage and the nihilistic and depressing reality of the griminess (and grimness) of the industry at hand – the making of the American musical. There is no glamour here, instead it is a warts and all detailing of egos, shattered dreams, sexual flippancy and artistic difference (and indifference). 

Joe is a narcissistic monster plagued with insecurities, protected by a hardened shell that has been callused throughout the years. He is addicted to nicotine, speed, sex, work, booze and himself, and through conversations with a fetishized Angel of Death (Jessica Lange) we come to understand this theatrical maestro through a highly stylized confessional. At the same time, he is presented as an insincere showman, as he dolls up in clown garb and continually embellishes truths. Set up in a backstage scenario and with Lange’s image of God presented as a pin up girl from Joe’s youth, these fantasy sequences frame the film with a troubling dreamlike quality and act as a Greek chorus of insight into this megalomaniac who will eventually work, sleep, drug and drink his way to a heart attack and die by the end of the picture.  Joe cannot connect, and that is his problem. He sleeps around because sex is something he equates to eating or drinking, he won’t rest or stop because he is addicted to work and yet it is through his work where he makes artistic and sexual connections that all service his compartment-like being. Girls serve his sexual needs, his relationship with his daughter Michelle (Erzsebet Foldi) serves his emotional needs, and intellectually he is fueled by dance – something that takes its toll on the body, but just as necessary as sex, drugs and egocentricity.

ALL THAT JAZZ (20th Century-Fox / Columbia, 1979) Bob Fosse (left)

The opening sequence of the cattle call for the Broadway dancers set to George Benson’s “On Broadway” is a perfect montage. The gritty reality behind the dancing and the singing is representative of the New York stage in all its grime and trauma. It is also one of the best edited and shot opening sequences in history, capturing all there is to know about the life of a Broadway dancer. These gypsies who need a job (the core theme in the brilliant A Chorus Line) throw their bodies around the stage, but only some will win the affection and attention of Joe. The insatiable sexual drive and his personal conquests dictate a lot of what Joe is about, as he cruises the line and flirts with female dancers, all of them eager to get a part in a musical. Outside of working as a director/choreographer, Joe is a filmmaker, working on a feature that is a direct reference to Bob Fosse’s Lenny (1974). The film-within-the-film “The Stand-Up” stars Cliff Gorman (who had wowed audiences as the effete Emory in The Boys in the Band (1970)) as a cocaine snorting, self-loathing stand-up comic. Drug addled stand-up comics would become something that cinema would soon become obsessed with during the eighties – these clowns crying on the inside would suddenly pop up everywhere in film, and Bob Fosse seems to be attracted to that. Its familiar ground for him: he is after all also attracted to the perplexed, anguish-laden dancer that he so often presents.

All That Jazz is an autobiographical look at an artist who is consumed by work and his vices, his promiscuity an extension of his connection to his art and his inability to connect to one person. His ex-wife Audrey (Leland Palmer) is a polar opposite to Joe, a dancer (another conquest) but who finds herself having to remind him that he is a father and that his work matters. A complicated contradiction at its best and a perfect narrative tool to highlight Joe’s split devotion to the musical he is working on and his alarmingly cynical and aware young daughter. His relationship with his daughter is distant and beset in the world of dance, but it is tender, while Ann Reinking (who plays his primary lover Katie) seems to be the closest to his daughter.

Deborah Geffner’s beautiful turn as dancer Victoria (who wanted to be a movie actress when she was a kid) summarizes the insecurities and vulnerabilities of the artist. When she speaks of her crooked nose, it is her desperate need to know that Gideon can tell her that she could be an actress and therefore possibly perfect. “It’s a very freaky business”, he tells her, then goes on to tell her that she can never be a good actress, but he can make her a good dancer. When Katie walks in on him in bed with Victoria, her expression sums it up perfectly – she expects the cheating, a manifestation of egocentric behavior and insatiable lust. Victoria doesn’t get angry when Joe tells her that she can never be great, instead she accepts it and falls for his charms. His sexual bravado is what feeds the theatrical enterprise all of these women are part of. Fosse then cuts to a flashback sequence at a burlesque bar where Keith Gordon as a young Gideon studies in a dressing room where he is interrupted by a stripper who insinuates a lesson that will be influence him later in life. As showgirls parade around him, fondling him, he ejaculates in his pants and it is all on for show as he tap dances in front of a ghoulish audience laughing in hysterics. The idea of being on stage with a semen stain comments on the relationship between sex and art: a messy situation that can be trivialized and laughed at. Exposure is what All That Jazz is about: it exposes truths, ruthlessness and ego.

Joe’s jealousy of other men is shown where Katie calls another dancer named Michael (“straight, not gay”). Joe’s insecurities about his sexual prowess are thrust under the spotlight and here is where Roy Scheider is phenomenal. As fantastic he is as the show pony perfectionist workaholic, he is mesmerizing to watch as a fumbling schoolboy, scared to lose the girls he has already had. Married to this performance is Fosse’s energetic direction, peppered with overwhelming sadness. The bleak and desolate portrait of an artist trapped in self-involved ambition and desire is counterbalanced with dark comic inspired lines such as the very lyrical “I wish you weren’t so generous with your cock”. While Ann Reinking’s Katie protests his promiscuity, God (as a voice of reason and also as the voice of what he wants to hear) explains that his sexual freedoms are a turn on. This is something that Joe has told himself many times before. In Fosse’s film, even God is in the service of ego and narcissism –Joe seems to talk to the God character via mirrors, and as one of the cinema’s great distancing tools, mirrors are often used for this kind of reflexivity. God is Joe’s witness, not his contemporary.

ALL THAT JAZZ (20th Century-Fox / Columbia, 1979) Roy Scheider

Another moment showcasing the self and self-awareness is when the “Take Off With Us” presentation occurs with bubbly, flamboyant composer Paul (Anthony Holland) barking it out with exhausting exuberance. During this scene (hearkening back to classic Broadway Tin Pan Alley scenario), the “catchy, bouncy” zaniness is a base line for Joe, who is set to direct and choreograph the number. His ex-wife Audrey struggles not to laugh, not only at what Joe has to salvage, but the fact that Broadway’s diversity is something Joe wants channel to a new direction of semi-smut and sexual sophistication. What he  does with this song is sexual pantomime and porno-chic at its best in the film’s most dazzling and startling sequence, as well as one of its most tantalizing and unnerving scene, as “Take Off With Us” slowly morphs into “Airotica”.

Fosse’s polyamorous background (he lived with two women) also makes the song “Two Ladies” from Cabaret (1972) resonate, and is presented in All That Jazz tenderly in a scene with father and daughter dancing together. This paints a not-so-ideal portrait of what Joe Gideon considers parental obligation. “Why don’t you get married again?” his daughter Michelle asks, to which her father explains that he can’t marry anyone because he doesn’t want to inflict pain onto anyone again. Love equals pain, and when the Angel of Death asks if he believes in love, Joe replies “I believe in telling people I love them”. He also forgets sexual conquests’ names, and even fails to recall if he called them “sweetheart” or “darling”. He is a Lothario in the darkest sense, a demonic entity that shifts from heart to heart, but only sees a body to possess. “Show time folks!” becomes a cynical mantra, and the scene where Victoria is grilled during a rehearsal exemplifies this. His statement “Stop smiling, it’s not the high school play” summarizes the seventies musical – there is no room for happiness or cheer here, but there is plenty of room for nastiness, vulgarity and oppression.

Joe’s argument with Audrey about the trappings of monogamy are sidestepped as older dancer Audrey breaks down when her ex-husband’s genius is on show during “Take Off With Us/Airotica”. He has taken something from Tin Pan Alley and made it new Broadway. And he does this even with his drug addiction – along with other things, it will eventually kill him, but speed keeps him working and makes his vision sharper and more ruthless in its execution. Joe is a ruthless revolutionary.

Bob Fosse’s choreography is breathtaking. Sandahl Bergman’s incredible lead in “Airotica” is outstanding as she throws and thrusts her lithe and statuesque body about like  a woman possessed. This is also the case for her fellow dancers, including Deborah Geffner who launches into a frenzy that transcends and elevates the number.

The choreography is stellar and in addition to the number’s motion is the overt sexuality – the dripping sensuality that is earthy and dense. The nudity and the multiple sexual practices all polarized by the straight couple, the gay couple and lesbian couple, coming together in a orgiastic explosion is an element of the sexual being that Fosse was a dancer and as a creative force. When Paul the composer whispers to the producer “I think we just lost the family audience”, it is telling sentiment – Broadway has changed. The Music Man (1962) has packed his bags and Bob Fosse will take over from here. But sadly, not for much longer. The motto in “Airotica” is “We take you everywhere but get you nowhere” is a simple message of the “divine decadence” lasting power – the sex, the drugs, the booze and the art will be over, because formidable monstrosities are just around he corner. Fosse as one of the most integral figures that would come to introduce the dark, the decedent and the hyper-sexual to the dance world is a reflection of the man as a perfectionist: epitomized in the mini-monologue he has when he screams out “God makes a rose and its perfect, how can I do that?”

A charming but cynical scene comes late in the piece as Katie and Michelle (Joe’s steady lover and his daughter) dance for a drunken Joe in his apartment singing “everything old is new again”. This brilliant coming together and awkward meshing of old Broadway with the new is presented here in a starkly lit living room with two enthusiastic chorus girls showering love onto a drunk. The respect given to the classicist American musical thrust into a new construction is so wildly handled here by Bob Fosse and crew, and dancers such as Ann Reinking are a superb tool for this commentary on the power of the musical and the angry voice it can sometimes have: a voice that comes from something proud as well as tormented and distinctly American. The Jazz age and the birth of the American musical comes crashing here into an edgy world: Fosse’s background as a classical musical theater and film magician meets up with the Fosse of the seventies, and it is cynical, self-critical and desperate.

ALL THAT JAZZ (20th Century-Fox / Columbia, 1979) Sandahl Bergman (center)

At the full cast reading of Joe’s  new musical, silence crashes in and leaves only the sounds Gideon himself makes (his tapping fingers, his scraping nails, his ashing of his cigarette). This is oppressive and unnerving, as the world goes on around him but he is consumed by his own egocentricities and personal demons. The reading is ultimately a success, but he doesn’t feel it and Audrey – who knows him well – senses it. His heart condition, linked to the work he puts into his new musical, will kill him. The entire film is focused on the tension between show business itself and life and death.

His passion for the musical is more important than his own health, and death runs through the film, grimacing at Joe Gideon with barbaric glee. The artist on the verge of having a heart attack paves the way for a dark yet comedic montage in the hospital where the partying, boozing, smoking, drugs, and  sex continues. The ultimate moment of whistling in the dark is where Audrey, Paul and the entire cast and crew talk about how well Joe is while deep down they know he’s not going to make it: “there’s no business like show business” rings its truest here. And to add insult to injury, Bob Fosse introduces a snaky character in John Lithgow who pops up as an opportunistic director, ready to step in to Joe’s shoes and take over the musical.

Another important addition to the film is the talented Ben Vereen as a TV variety host and alter-ego to Joe, who becomes the emcee at death’s door, ushering in Gideon to his own special that will be his farewell performance. This kind of magic throw away the fears that are articulated by Cliff Gorman’s stand-up character who suggests that Joe Gideon has a deep rooted fear of being conventional and a dreadful dear of being ordinary and not special. The idea of Gideon not caring about whether he lives or dies plays beautifully against the sterility of the visuals in the hospital and the cold concrete walls, the dingy hallways, the cloudy skies and the rain-drenched, filthy streets. The use of floaty music compliments a nasty review from a critic discussing “The Stand-Up” which has its release as Joe goes into surgery. She explains that “the old razzle dazzle obliterates the drama”, but here in Fosse’s film, that is not the case. The model of the movie musical heightens and expresses the depressing drama all too well. The operation is depicted as a musical number- hosted by Audrey – is presented as a vaudeville show, offeings something distressing and yet completely engaging.

When Katie admits that she is sleeping with someone else while Gideon lies on his death bed, it is a final act of brutality and the crushing vulnerability of the once womanizing, pill popping artist appears. Moments after this, there is a sequence that cross cuts between the troubled musical’s budget breakdown while Gideon has his chest cut open. It is a gripping piece of cinema – the heartlessness of money talk in show business while we are subjected to the gory reality of open heart surgery: the blood, the raw flesh, this is what the musical says so much about the industry as its primary focus – the liability of Gideon’s death causing money issues and also the notion that the show will make money without even opening, rendering Gideon’s survival meaningless. “That’s very theatrical, Joe”, says the Angel of Death, and he is. He is now a tragic figure besieged by disappointment and cruelty. The hospital hallucination sequence becomes a lavish movie musical number: as Gideon dies,  a highly stylized musical commences with the ladies in his life belting out “After You’re Gone” and “There’ll Be Some Changes Made” while Joe directs the musical as he lies dying in bed.

Fosse’s signature choreography – the twitchiness, the cat-like gestures, the leaps and motion phrases – all add to the eeriness of the piece. The chorus girls of ex-lovers with their ghastly faces represent the grotesque element of promiscuity and a boulevard of broken vows, while Joe continues to be Lothario, kissing a dying woman in her hospital bed. Joe experiences his last moments as both a sexual liberator and slave. The old Broadway “life is a bowl of cherries” mentality – when things are bad, the song can lift the spirits – punches us in the face as Joe Gideon’s body bag is zipped up and Ethel Merman sings “There’s no business like show business”. All That Jazz lets us know that there’s no people like show people, they smile – sometimes grotesquely – even when they are low. But sometimes they don’t, instead, they work themselves into a grave with pills, liquor and sexual conquests – after all, this isn’t the high school play.

About Lee Gambin

Lee Gambin is a writer, author and film historian. He writes for Fangoria, Shock Till You Drop, Delirium, Warner Bros. and Scream Magazine. He has written the books Massacred By Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film, We Can Be Who We Are: Movie Musicals of the 1970s and the soon to be released The Howling: Studies in the Horror Film. He runs Melbourne based film society Cinemaniacs and lectures on cinema studies, currently working on a lecture series called "Can You Dig It?: Tortured Young Men in Film from 1976-1986 while working on two new books - one on the Stephen King adaptation "Cujo" entitled Nope, Nothing Wrong Here: The Making of Cujo and another book with collaborator Cris Wilson called Tonight, On A Very Special Episode: A History of Sitcoms that Sometimes Got Serious.

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