After seeing a pretty-decent high-school production of Pippin with the family, the time seemed right to give Ben a glimpse into the complex figure behind the dance moves that define that and so many other unforgettable stage shows and films: Bob Fosse.
Fosse’s work goes back to the fifties in musicals like Damn Yankees and Pajama Game where his energetic dance numbers overwhelmed nearly everything else in those shows. As his choreography chops continued to sharpen, and cultural norms changed, his productions became more energized and erotically charged in shows like Cabaret, and the aforementioned Pippin.
In 1973, Fosse suffered a heart attack while simultaneously choreographing another stage musical and directing Lenny, a quirky biopic about the edgy comedian Lenny Bruce. Far from stifling his creativity, that setback inspired Fosse to create a new film based on his emotional reaction to that near-death experience.
In All That Jazz, Roy Scheider plays Joe Gideon, a barely disguised version of Fosse, who is not only juggling a stage show and film, but also an ex-wife (and kid), a lover, and a host of one-night stands. This while also chain smoking while washing down uppers with Alka Seltzer.
The film captures each aspect of his frenetic life through emotionally charged snippits. For instance, while we never quite know what the Broadway show he’s working on is about, a preview for producers lets us see one complete number where he turns a limp airplane-themed song into a sexual roller-coaster that only his wife recognizes as his best work ever.
There he is bickering with his wife and bonding with his daughter, all the while learning, practicing or performing his latest dance moves. Meanwhile, his roll through projects, lovers and life is a swirl of creating, perfecting, drinking, smoking and downing pills – with death staring him in the face at every turn.
Oh, did I mention Death is a character in the picture? Clad in all white, and tempting Gideon with her own seductive offers, this personification of mortality interacts with the lead in a strange Nether-Netherland, where Fosse/Gideon is able to confess to her all his life’s sins while the people he’s loved, harmed or inspired (many played by actual friends and creative colleagues of the director) perform for and with him in a final cabaret seeing him into the afterlife.
I’ve heard that the 1970s is considered by some to have been one of the greatest decades in American film, years in which the studios trusted auteur directors (vs. CGI and formula scripts) to deliver audiences. And trusting Bob Fosse, the ultimate auteur, turned a picture that could have ended up a self-indulgent half-filled balloon into an award winning, unforgettable, profile of a flawed human and creative dynamo who left a gigantic footprint on our culture.
Not a picture for young ones (especially that airplane number scene mentioned above). But how about for teenage Fosse fans?
Ben replies: I agree that theatre loving kids ought to be interested in the life of the man who basically recreated musical theatre. I also agree with the praise you give, though I must admit the picture took a while to sink in. I had given up trying to understand what was going on after the 6th minute of the 9 minute musical number Scheider shares with Ben Vereen about accepting death. This flick is well crafted and interesting from start to finish, and though lacking in structure, it was able to truly depict the life of a complicated person, bravely exposing his troubled, diseased and narcissistic life. Undeniably a great flick, for any entertainment lover.