In the semester after Trainspotting came out, I took two more courses at Marquette University to complete my Film minor. The first, “Gangster Films” was exactly what the title declared, covering crime movies from the original Scarface up to the likes of Point Blank and Serpico; the second, “Film As Communication”, fortunately ended up far less generic than its title insinuated. An overview of various cinematic techniques, I no longer remember much of what we watched apart from Black Orpheus (for its use of music), Throne of Blood (as an example of a literary adaptation) and for its editing, All That Jazz, Bob Fosse’s 1979 autobiographical, nontraditional, phantasmagorical musical.
When the course got to that Fosse film, I settled into my wobbly desk chair, taking in the brief opening credits (just the film’s title laid out in lightbulbs over a musical fanfare) and first iteration of its recurring “bathroom montage” (more on that later.) A strong sense of déjà vu kicked in as All That Jazz soon transitioned to a much longer montage of dancers auditioning on a massive stage for the film’s lead/Fosse alter-ego Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider), all of it set to George Benson’s up-tempo funk cover of the old Drifters song “On Broadway”. I immediately recalled watching this sequence at home with my mom about ten years earlier. I hadn’t considered it since then, but I recognized it and thought back to that distant afternoon when I was 11 or 12.
Although I spent my childhood glued in front of the TV each day after school watching stuff I’d picked out for myself (cartoons, game shows, sitcom reruns) like any other kid, once in a great while I’d take an interest in a movie my mom selected or more likely stumbled across while flipping through channels. This was how I first saw The Out-Of-Towners, where a suburban Ohio couple’s (played by Jack Lemmon and the magnificently daft Sandy Dennis) trip to Manhattan goes horribly, hilariously wrong and Sweet Charity, Fosse’s film debut and musical adaptation of Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (which he’d previously directed on stage), starring Shirley MacLaine as a “dance hall girl” in ultra-groovy late ‘60s NYC.
I’m sure I dutifully watched other “films for grownups” with my mom, but few were as striking or unique as those first ten minutes of All That Jazz. Cut together from what I can only assume was a mountain of footage, the “On Broadway” montage comes off like a casual, modern ballet, shifting between synchronized movements, rapid-fire edits and occasional asides to the theater seats where a group of producers sit and watch along with Gideon’s ex-wife and his young daughter. It leads the audience through the entire audition process as applicants are gradually winnowed out, but it’s often more like an impressionist painting of such. A bravura edit of seven or so twirling dancers staged to seem as if one is magically changing into the next (well over a decade before the morphing technology implemented in Michael Jackson’s “Black Or White” video) is as technically impressive and emotionally stirring as a simple, slow zoom-out wide shot of Gideon kneeling center stage before hundreds of dancers performing the same routine: the artist as director scrutinizing the massive throng of hopefuls.
After that bravura opening sequence, I soon realized that I didn’t remember anything else from the film because my mom likely changed the channel before my prepubescent self had a chance to see all the bare breasts, witness teenaged Gideon’s premature ejaculation while performing onstage at a burlesque joint or hear Josh (Max Wright), Gideon’s film producer exclaim with the wailing anxiety only the future Willie Tanner could covey, “The BRASS is eating my ASS out, Joe!” All That Jazz was unambiguously R-rated and thus not something I was allowed to watch at that age.
In retrospect, I’m a little astonished that our professor, a Jesuit priest (!) felt comfortable screening such a racy film for us; just five years earlier, one of my teachers fast-forwarded through all the action sequences in the film adaptation of Man of La Mancha because, Catholic hippie that he was, he abhorred violence of any kind and didn’t want to expose us to it (a quaint notion even then.) I suppose that’s one distinction between high school and college—we were technically adults, so now it was appropriate to watch nudity and hear foul language (or perhaps my professor was just a Cool Priest.)
Either way, I’m certain I had more fun watching All That Jazz than anything else in “Film As Communication”. Fosse’s thinly veiled portrait of himself—a talented, middle-aged, self-loathing, workaholic stage and film director whose bad habits push him toward an early grave—never lets up on the “ol’ razzle-dazzle” (to quote a song from another landmark Fosse production, the 1975 stage version of Chicago.) It’s his own take on Fellini’s 8 ½, but bolder, brassier and more vulgar. An opulent feast of sight and sound, forever blurring fact and fiction, reality and dreams and striving to entertain while also being almost excruciatingly personal, it walks a fine line not unlike the quick, silent shots scattered throughout of Gideon descending, slo-mo onto a net after failing to walk steady across a tightrope of his own devising.
After the audition montage, the film veers from one elaborate set-piece to another. The aforementioned bathroom montage, which recurs a few times, consists of a rapid series of cuts of Gideon getting ready to face the world for yet another day, showering and popping pills, eyedrops and alka-seltzer tablets, all of it set to the stentorian strings of Vivaldi’s “Concerto in G” and ending with him gesturing in front of his mirror with feigned gusto, “It’s Showtime, Folks!” With each iteration, however, the cuts are less frequent, Gideon’s smoker’s cough more prevalent. By the last go-round, he can’t even bring himself to intelligibly exclaim his self-motivating catchphrase because he’s nearly out of breath and hacking too much. One also gets a sense he’s increasingly having trouble mustering up the gumption to believe what he’s saying.
Centerpiece “Take Off With Us” is a musical number for the stage production Gideon’s directing. About midway through All That Jazz, his company of about a dozen dancers runs through it in a rehearsal space for the show’s producers and investors. Gleefully displaying all of Fosse’s trademarks (brimmed hats, finger snaps, sensual movements), it’s the act of creation brought to fruition: we’ve already seen most of these steps and have heard the number’s A Chorus Line-esque title song in numerous rehearsal scenes—here, Fosse shows us the thrill of it all coming together. But it’s not enough: Fosse/Gideon then pushes it further (“It’s not exactly over yet,” Gideon sheepishly says to his selected audience) as the number mutates into a dimly lit, smoke-machine enhanced, explicitly sexual ballet that might be the most elaborate, poetic and outrageous thing Fosse’s ever conceived of (on film, anyway.) Afterwards, the producers, gobsmacked, can only respond, “It’s… interesting!” while Paul (Anthony Holland), the song’s composer frets to himself, “Now Sinatra will never record it!”
Still, Fosse’s concerns extend far beyond pushing artistic boundaries while impatiently waiting for the rest of the world to catch up with them. As if directing a big budget stage production isn’t enough, Gideon spends his off-hours in an editing booth, doing post-production work on a feature film called The Stand-Up, which suspiciously resembles Fosse’s own previous feature Lenny, a biopic on comedian Lenny Bruce starring Dustin Hoffman. In All That Jazz, Gideon struggles over a sequence of the film where the title character (played by Cliff Gorman, who starred as Bruce in the original stage production of Lenny!) delivers a comedic monologue on Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ “Five Stages of Grief”, ruminating on each one (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) in elaborate detail.
All this death talk is a gateway into the film’s most ambitious framing device. From the opening of All That Jazz, we catch glimpses of Gideon in a darkened dressing room, casually conversing with a beautiful, veiled woman done up in white played by a young Jessica Lange. They almost scan like therapy sessions, with Gideon confessing various sins to her about the ladies he’s wronged in his life and other regrets regarding his career choices. These interactions are playful and reflective rather than morose: “Don’t bullshit a bullshitter,” he wryly warns her at one point, and it’s surely more solid and candid a core philosophy/mantra for Fosse/Gideon than “It’s Showtime, Folks!”
Such interactions between Gideon and this woman are key components of the film’s grand design. They arrive often, sometimes cutting midway into a scene, suggesting that All That Jazz is all going on in Gideon’s head as he looks over a lifetime of memories. It’s only following the “Take Off With Us” sequence that the woman in white’s identity comes into focus. Scenes of Gideon suffering a heart attack and entering the hospital are cut with her slowly removing her veil, flashing a thousand-watt smile at Gideon, inviting him to come closer for she is his manifestation of the Angel of Death (referred to only as “Angelique” in the credits.) “No, not yet,” he warns her as it dawns on him what’s happening. She temporarily disappears from the film as we get another montage, this one of Gideon behaving badly in the hospital, partying with his visitors and sexually harassing his wet nurse—a rather poorly aged sequence in the “Me Too” era that nonetheless acknowledges (with a healthy dose of self-loathing) what a scoundrel Gideon can be.
Watching All That Jazz in “Film as Communication”, we did not make it beyond this last montage for time was up—not an uncommon occurrence for some of these MU film courses. Occasionally, some film professors would fail to keep track of the class’ three-hour running time and we wouldn’t finish the movie. In this pre-streaming age, we weren’t required to see the rest of a particular film unless we chose to write a paper about it. At the time, I was bummed to have not been able to watch All That Jazz’s remaining forty minutes; fortunately, a month later, I spotted a VHS copy of it on sale for $4.99 at Best Buy (of all places) via their weekly newspaper ad. The Saturday after Thanksgiving, on the way to a bowling night with friends, I stopped by the Blue Mound Road location in suburban Brookfield and secured my very own copy for a fiver and some change.
The next day, I popped in the tape and fast-forwarded to the moment where we left off in class. Prior to starting the film, my professor remarking that its ending was a prediction of sorts of Fosse’s own death, which would occur less than a decade later. Dropping this tidbit only heightened my curiosity about the film’s remainder. Finally finishing it a month later, I have to admit I did not even come close to correctly imagining how it would actually turn out: in All That Jazz’s third act, the surrealism gently alluded to in dribs and drabs throughout the film’s first eighty minutes comes to the forefront, escalating into a delirious finale that is at once as iconic an onscreen Fosse musical number as Sweet Charity’s “Hey, Big Spender” or Cabaret’s title song and also possibly the most 1979 thing ever.
But first, there’s so much more to cover. Like the negative TV critic’s review of The Stand-Up, which manages to drag Lenny-basher Pauline Kael and the Siskel & Ebert “thumbs up/thumbs down” approach to film reviews. Or an extended hallucination where, during surgery, Gideon’s girlfriend (played by Fosse’s own gf Ann Reinking!), ex-wife and daughter perform a quartet of musical numbers (accompanied by surgeons mockingly keeping rhythm with tambourines and a clapboard) for him, incapacitated and semi-conscious on a gurney while another Gideon directs the whole thing as if it were a film. Or a producers/investors meeting (including Wallace Shawn as a number-cruncher!) where they discuss what Gideon’s health financially means for the show (and their insurance policy), intercut with actual graphic footage meant to stand in for Gideon’s own heart surgery. Or another sequence where Gideon, bleeding from the head, escapes his bed and runs rampant through the hospital as the Kübler-Ross monologue from The Stand-Up fills the soundtrack.
All these set pieces and their overall trajectory imply that Gideon isn’t long for this world. After two orderlies find him happily singing “Pack Up Your Troubles” with an amused janitor in the hospital’s basement, they wheel him back to his bed, where, about to go under for the last time, he says of his life, “This is just a rough cut, you know.” From there, a pan up to his EKG machine dissolves into a TV screen airing another episode of a variety show (with a host played by Ben Vereen) we’ve seen Gideon watch in the hospital several times before. In each version, Vereen introduces the show as a tribute to “a great entertainer, a great humanitarian and my dear friend…” This time, the subject is only “a so-so entertainer, not much of a humanitarian and this cat was *nobody’s* friend.” Vereen also notes that this guy “Didn’t know where the games ended, and reality began… for this cat, the only reality – is Death, man.”
Of course, the honoree is Gideon, and his “final appearance on the great stage of life” (as Vereen puts it) is a full-blown rock concert duet the two perform for an audience of everyone Gideon’s ever known: a take-off of the old Everly Brothers tune “Bye Bye Love” called “Bye Bye Life”. Decked out in an ultra-sparkly shirt, backed by a rock and roll band cloaked in wacky, futuristic (for the period) garb and flanked by dancing girls in vein-covered, inside-out body suits and gleaming-eyed robotic heads dispersed throughout the crowd, Gideon goes for broke, giving (along with Scheider, it must be acknowledged) the performance of his life, at one point taking a massive victory slide across the stage. The song plays like an extended vamp, the camera often cutting in time with handclaps, the music and melody swelling and sighing as Gideon signs with wistfulness and joy, “I think I’m gonna die / Bye-bye, my life, goodbye.”
For Fosse, this all goes back to that previous notion, “Life is a cabaret, old chum” and it’s only fitting that Gideon ends his life on stage as the star of his own showstopper. A year after I first saw All That Jazz, a friend of mine watched it in another film class. He liked it, but derisively described its finale as “Pure Cheese”. He wasn’t entirely wrong—the up-to-the-minute aesthetic Fosse suffused it with would feel awfully dated even four or five years after it was first released. Its disco-friendly glitz and Star Wars-era sci-fi regalia is honestly not far off from the likes of The Apple, even. And yet, I wouldn’t change a thing about it—frozen in time as it is, what Fosse’s expressing within it is crystal clear. For Gideon, the end of his life is an about-face, the audience a reminder of what it means to love and be loved in return (in the number’s final minute, he runs down into the crowd, shaking hands and hugging those closest to him), a state of grace, a rejection of his own misanthropy, proof that he’s ready to leave the material world behind. After he’s exited the stage, we see him moving closer and closer to Angelique, ready to receive the Kiss of Death.
It’s a touching, resonant concept but remember—for Fosse, the only reality is Death, man. Thus, just as Gideon makes contact with Angelique, there’s an abrupt cut to him, motionless on a gurney, getting zipped up in a body bag. Ethel Merman’s rendition of “There’s No Business Like Show Business” plays. The end credits roll. When Fosse died eight years later, on the way to attending a show with his ex-wife/longtime muse Gwen Verdon, who knows what was going on in his mind during those last moments, if they were anything like All That Jazz. It ultimately doesn’t matter, for the vision he shared of himself, channeling so many thoughts and dreams, conveying so much brilliance and messiness into a challenging yet cogent work of art is enough. This notion of a fine line separating life and art was on my mind as I prepared the following year for a major change in my own life and the role art would play in it.
Essay #5 of 24 Frames.
Go back to #4: Trainspotting.