The film that stood out most for me throughout the week of this year’s Zomerfilmcollege was Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979). It was spellbinding to see how Fosse handled some of the heaviest subject matter – cancer, open-heart surgery and, finally, death – without making the audience flee for the exits. The movie was screened after Adrian Martin’s lecture on “Musical Mutations.” In that context, it’s worthwhile to examine how the movie can be placed in its time and genre, and in contrast to Fosse’s earlier film Cabaret (1972).
All That Jazz was released in 1979, a time when the musical enjoyed something of a renaissance, albeit in ‘mutated’ form. In 1975, cult stage production The Rocky Horror Picture Show was brought to the big screen. Even detractors of the genre are now familiar with its story of a young couple held captive by mad scientist Frank N. Furter, and its highly theatrical ‘camp’ spoof on the sci-fi and horror genres, with a special interest in transvestism, travesty and transsexuality. 1977 saw the release of both Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York and Saturday Night Fever (Badham). The former centers on the dysfunctional relationship between Robert De Niro’s Jimmy and Liza Minnelli’s Francine, leading to divorce and Jimmy walking out on his wife and their newborn child. The movie ends without them having reconciled. The Bee Gees-scored Saturday Night Fever doesn’t fare much better on the relationships front and features scenes of rape and suicide next to some incredible disco-dancing. A year later Travolta was back in Grease (Kleiser), and even in this light-weight homage cum pastiche of fifties rock ‘n’ roll high school movies, his character, Danny, has trouble winning the heart of perennial sweetheart Sandy. The movie mainly plays around with on-again off-again relationships, but also touches on the subject of teen pregnancy. Hair (Forman) was released the same year as All That Jazz, and takes on the Vietnam War, as well as drug use and abuse. These films provide only a limited sample of what film musicals had to offer in the late seventies, but make apparent an amazing range and diversity, ranging from social issues like transsexualism, rape, abuse, single parenthood, etc. to ethical and moral issues surrounding the Vietnam War. One thing aforementioned films have in common is the central presence of a community, or at least, a relationship: Brad and Janet; Jimmy and Francine; Tony and Stephanie, as well as Tony’s group of friends; Danny and Sandy, the T-Birds and The Pink Ladies; Claude, George, Hug, Jeannie, Woof, and Sheila. But then Fosse comes along with All That Jazz, and focuses mainly on his protagonist, Joe (Roy Scheider). Granted, Joe has a lot of dysfunctional relationships, but they are not at the center of the movie; it’s his show throughout. In an interview featured on the Criterion Collection DVD, Bob Fosse explains that he wanted the film to be about his state of mind at a particular point in his career, dealing with issues of the ego and its many frustrations, most of all mortality.
For a musical centering on one man, it is remarkable that Joe only performs once throughout the entire film, and that the audience has to wait for that moment until the very end. True he’s the show’s director and not its star, but compared to, say, Fred Astaire’s equally autobiographical aging Broadway star Tony Hunter in Minnelli’s The Band Wagon (1953), it’s surprising how little he gets to show his hoofing skills. That this was Fosse’s intent from the very start is shown by the casting of ‘straight’ actor Roy Scheider, but it also might have something to do with the meaning pivotal songs tend to have in classical musicals. Adrian Martin discussed the power of the song to “enchant,” and explained how this can literally be taken as giving the “breath of life.” He also showed a clip from gipsy musical Latcho Drom (Gatlif, 1993) to illustrate the possibility of a (communal) song lifting someone out of depression. With this function of the song in mind, it makes more sense for Fosse to put Joe’s performance at the end of his movie about death. The final performance can be seen as Joe’s last breath that at once restores the community around him and allows him to come to terms with mortality. It also explains why the hallucinatory imagined performances by his ex-wife, girlfriend, and daughter couldn’t convince him to change his lifestyle: he didn’t perform with them, he was just a spectator.
Martin discussed All That Jazz in the context of what he called the “anti-musical.” With its focus on just one person, the film breaks away from the longstanding tradition in musicals to center on relationships or entire communities. The hospital setting and the theme of death are so unusual for the musical that Martin referred to Fosse as “the man who made the musical grotesque.” Martin most definitely has a point here. Watching All That Jazz, there are few moments when you don’t feel some discomfort. Take Joe’s morning routine: a montage sequence shows him showering, taking his medication, turning to the mirror: “It’s show time, folks!” As his health deteriorates, the routine becomes more and more painful to watch given the regular coughing fits and him clutching his painful wrist. Another instance where the movie makes you squirm is when Audrey, Joe’s ex-wife, is cast as a 24-year old in the Broadway production, despite her being of a much riper age. As you see her practicing dance moves meant for a body with more flexibility than hers, you want to look away out of pity, in the process sublimating the movie’s theme of aging and mortality.
The movie also mercilessly dissects the business of producing on a Broadway show much in the same way that Fellini showed the darker sides of moviemaking. There’s a scene in which the producers of Joe’s show are having a lunch meeting, happily discussing the possibility of making a profit in the event of Joe dying before the show opening. Even in his hallucinations, show business is out to get Joe. As he’s lying on his hospital bed and the final phantasmagoric performance takes place around him, his imagined and healthier self is pressing him to say his lines at the right moment and to send the footage of the performances to get printed. The final shot of the film is Fosse’s ultimate jab at show business as Joe’s body bag is zipped closed to the tune of “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”
Fosse didn’t make his anti-musical debut with All That Jazz. In 1973, he won an Academy Award for Best Director for Cabaret (1972), trumping Francis Ford Coppola for The Godfather. Cabaret takes place in Germany during the rise of Nazism. It’s baffling to observe the indifference towards Nazism with which several of the characters go about their daily lives. When Sally, Brian and Maximilian drive past a dead body lying in the streets surrounded by policemen and banners promoting fascism, they start discussing a fun weekend off. Throughout the film, Maximilian remains convinced that the fascists can be kept under control, even when during a crucial scene in a Biergarten a blonde boy starts singing “Tomorrow Belongs To Me.” What starts out as a seemingly innocent moment quickly takes a disquieting turn when the camera pans down and reveals the boy to be a Hitler youth. When the rest of the community starts joining in, along with other soldiers, it begs belief to see Maximilian stand by his ideas.
I would argue that the main difference between Cabaret and All That Jazz lies in how Fosse displays the anti-musical elements. Cabaret is often more subtle in that respect, letting the theme of Nazism seep in through moments like “Tomorrow Belongs To Me,” hints of violence getting out of control (Brian’s confrontation with Nazis in the streets that results in his getting beaten up, a moment Fosse decides to keep off-screen), the increasing amount of soldiers in the audience of the cabaret, or even the moment when the manager of the cabaret is beaten to death, a scene crosscut with the Master of Ceremonies dancing around happily on stage with women dressed in lederhosen. There is nothing in Cabaret as outrageously, baroquely allegorical as Angelique, Joe’s Angel of Death (played by Jessica Lange) in All That Jazz.
Given the eclecticism of late 1970s musicals, Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz didn’t miss its mark. Even then, it managed to stand out by its obsessive focus on a single character’s perspective. What can we take away from All That Jazz? First, that there are five stages in becoming aware of your own death: Anger, Denial, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance (which — per the Lenny Bruce-like stand-up comedian whose life Joe is turning into a movie — sounds like a Jewish law firm). Second, that if Fosse’s life was even remotely like Joe’s, it’s a miracle he survived his heart attack (and lucky us that he did). And finally, that sparkly outfits sometimes go with heavy subject matter. There really is no business like show business.