Could it be, that I would pick a musical over all the other great films of 1979? While that seems completely out of character for me, keep in mind that All That Jazz is fairly gritty and at times sarcastic story of a struggling creative mind and his realization of mortality. It is set in both reality and within the deepest fantasies of Joe’s mind and based on the life story of the film’s director, Bob Fosse.
Roy Scheider plays Joe Gideon, a Broadway choreographer, film editor, dancer, womanizer, trying father, lousy lover, chain smoker and drug abuser. He keeps himself pretty busy and his body is struggling to keep up. We see his morning bathroom routine: drop some alka seltzer, cigarette in the shower, pop some Dexedrine, eye drops and “It’s showtime, folks.” Not the best methods to keep healthy. His personal struggles between his exwife, daughter and girlfriend don’t provide much emotional nourishment either. However, from the few heartwarming scenes, we see that he is loved and appreciated, no matter how much everything else gets in the way.
Doesn’t it always seem like when we finally do our best work, no one really appreciates it and it will never be seen? One of the most memorable dance scenes is when Joe is finally satisfied with the Airotica number he’s been struggling with. Well, it wasn’t originally supposed to be called that, but Joe revamped part of the number from a hokey airline commercial to into a very erotic and partially nude song and dance. It’s a brilliant number, Joe and the dancers are proud of their work, but it’s not what the producers had in mind at all. “Now Sinatra will never record it,” one says glumly.
Before seeing this film, I don’t think I could have ever imagined Roy Scheider as a dancer. The man had amazing grace, poise and the body to fit the character. Even though Joe is a character with many flaws and vices, Scheider brought him enough heart, passion and drive to make him someone we could connect with. And as Joe’s is faced with darker physical hurdles, Scheider still lets him thrive until the very end. I wish he had won the Oscar for Best Actor, but the nomination is still quite the achievement.
If you don’t connect the dots between the lady in white, the deteriorating health and the comic talking about death early on, you’ll soon see that Joe is going to be faced with his own mortality. The film shows Joe going though the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These come up in the comedian’s act and are replayed with purpose several times.
Throughout the film, we’re brought in and out of Joe’s near death fantasy world. It provides insight to Joe’s past and how he sees and has understood his own life. This world in Joe’s mind always has a stage nearby. Sometimes he’s talking to the woman in white backstage and at one point, a medical explanation is put in terms that Joe understands better with some hokey stage presence. The Oscars for art direction and costume design were probably won by all the odd and brilliant details going on in Joe’s mind. From the lady in white’s beautiful costume, the silhouettes of elevated hospital beds in scaffolding and the end finale with those two women in full body vein suits, I was impressed with the odd and thoughtful images throughout the film.
Let me ask you something a bit morbid, how do you think death will be for you? Writers may hope it will be recorded in books for generations to remember, teachers may want to explain to their pupils how their body is failing and engineers may imagine rigging life propulsion devices. Therefore, it would make perfect sense for a Broadway choreographer to imagine his death as he experiences it as the greatest show of his life. That’s certainly not a bad fantasy to keep your mind busy as the reality of your body shriveling up and shutting down plays out.
“I think I’m gonna die. Bye bye my life, goodbye.”