Friday, December 16, 2011


All That Jazz is the movie I wish had inspired me to become a dancer. Bob Fosse's artily stylized, semi-autobiographical, cinematic dissertation on the artist as self-destructive skirt-chaser, is just the kind of self-mythologizing fable that appeals to the romantic notion of the fragility of the creative process.

As stated in an earlier post, the movie that actually inspired me to abandon my film studies and embark on a 25-year career as a dancer, is the legendarily reviled roller-skatin' muse project, Xanadu (1980). Don't get me wrong... Xanadu, in all its flawed glory, is, and always will be for me, an infinitely more joyous, emotionally persuasive experience than All That Jazz ever was (those soaring notes reached by ELO and ONJ on Xanadu’s title track could inspire poetry). It's just that when one is recounting that seminal, life-altering moment wherein one’s artistic destiny is met square-on, face-to-face, it would have been to be nice to be able to point to a serious, substantive work like All That Jazz, instead of a film dubbed by Variety as being about, "A roller-skating lightbulb."
Roy Scheider as Joe Gideon (a.k.a. Bob Fosse)
Jessica Lange as Angelique (a.k.a. The Angel of Death)
Leland Palmer as Audrey Paris (a.k.a. Gwen Verdon)
Ann Reinking as Kate Jagger (a.k.a. Ann Reinking)
Ben Vereen as O'Connor Flood  (a.k.a. Sammy Davis, Jr.)
 All that Jazz is the story of Broadway choreographer Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider); a pill-popping, chain-smoking, serial-womanizing choreographer/director who struggles to prevent the demons that fuel his creativity from consuming his life. Simultaneously mounting a Broadway show and editing a motion picture, Gideon's intensifying abuse of his health (both physical and mental) manifests, surrealistically, as a literal love affair/dialog with death (a teasing Jessica Lange). Fosse makes no effort to mask the fact that Joe Gideon is Bob Fosse and All That Jazz is Fosse's ; but, as gifted as he is, Bob Fosse is no Frederico Fellini. His essential shallowness of character (something he takes great pains to dramatize in the film) makes for the baring of guardedly superficial insights, leaving the larger philosophical questions of "what price art?" unaddressed.
Director/choreographer Joe Gideon engaging in his other talent: disappointing loved ones.
In this case, his daughter, Michelle (Erzsebet Foldi) a.k.a. Nicole Fosse.

All That Jazz asks us to accept that Joe Gideon is selfish, an adulterer, a neglectful father, a philanderer, a manipulator, and a liar; but gosh darn it, at least he knows it! Nobody’s perfect, the film seems to be saying, but isn't a little of that imperfection mitigated by their ability to bring art into the world? What Gideon offers as a means of earthly penance for the pain he causes others, is his genius. And it's a point well-taken, for (at least to me) Fosse's choreography in All That Jazz is so brilliant as to justify almost anything. Almost.
And thus we land at what ultimately dissatisfies about All That Jazz for me. It purports to be introspective, but at its heart, it’s apologist. Fosse isn’t invested in getting to the root of what makes Gideon/Fosse tick, so much as pleading a case for the redemptive power of artistic genius.
"It's showtime, folks!"
I buy happily into the enduring romantic myth of the tortured, suffering artist. The tortured, suffering artist as asshole? Not so much. It seems to me a curiously male perspective that allows for the emotional collateral damage of a life of self-indulgence to be tolerated, and ultimately absolved, through one’s art. (The female equivalent: the fragile, too-sensitive-for-this-world type, more apt to do harm to herself than others.)

Although we're given scene after scene of Joe Gideon indulging in the self-serving candor of the cheater (“Yes, I’m a dog, but I’m upfront about it!”), these confessions never once feel emotionally revelatory. Rather, they recall this exchange from 1968's Cactus Flower-

(Walter Matthau's aging lothario prostrating himself before girlfriend Goldie Hawn)
Matthau:  I'm a bastard. I'm the biggest bastard in the whole world!
Hawn:  Julian,'re beginning to make it sound like bragging.

Personally, I'm waiting for the day when someone will make a film that sheds some light on what kind of women attach themselves to artistic, self-centered men - never resenting having to play second, third, or sixth fiddle - as they float, like interchangeable satellites, in the orbit of genius.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Gaydar Setting? Off the Chart
Dime-store psychologists seeking the origins of Bob Fosse's serial-womanizing need look no further than these two dishy publicity stills from early in Fosse's dance career. This guy must have felt he had something to prove. It couldn't have been easy being a heterosexual (possibly bisexual) dancer in an era when most male dancers were presumed to be gay, and the pervasive concepts of masculinity (none of which applied to the slight-framed, thin-voiced Fosse) were inflexible. The phenomenon is dramatized in the 1977 ballet film, The Turning Point when a straight male dancer admits to marrying and having a child at a young age in an effort to prove to himself he wasn't gay.

If you haven't yet gleaned it, I'm not overly fond of the autobiographical structure of All That Jazz's plot. But much like the women who put up with Joe Gideon because he's a genius of dance, I confess that I endure the clichéd narrative just so that I can enjoy the stupendous dance sequences. Bob Fosse is my favorite choreographer of all time, and his work here is beyond splendid. It's absolutely amazing, and among the best of his career.
A legend on Broadway, director/choreographer/sometime-actor Bob Fosse directed but three movie musicals (Sweet Charity, Cabaret, and All That Jazz), yet their influence on dance, the musical genre, and choreography for film has been far-reaching and incalculable. Raked over the coals by critics for the stylistic excesses of 1969s Sweet Charity (Pauline Kael went so far as to call the film "A disaster"); by the time these talents were honed and polished to a fine gloss in Cabaret (1972), Fosse's fluidly kinetic camerawork and slice and dice style of editing eventually became the definitive visual style for contemporary movie musicals.
What has always struck me about Fosse's dance style was how it was so perfect for the female form. If the lines of classic ballet celebrated the idealized feminine form— ethereal and untouchable—Fosse's sensuous style took women off the pedestal and celebrated her sensuality and reveled in her carnal vulgarity. Drawing from his days in burlesque, Fosse's style somehow sidesteps the passive, camp allure of the showgirl and captures an exhibitionistic hyper-femininity that carries with it a touch of danger. To watch the way Gwen Verdon moves as Lola in Damn Yankees is to see the pin-up ideal come to life. I've always thought that if a Vargas Girl portrait could move, she'd move like a Bob Fosse dancer.

Fosse elicits many fine performances from his cast. Roy Scheider, a non-dancer, is surprisingly good, displaying an easy charm behind a keyed-up physicality that makes him believable as a dancer and object of masochistic female affection (my heart blanches at the thought of originally-cast Richard Dreyfuss in the role). Leland Palmer is perhaps my favorite; a fabulous dancer and one of those actresses whose edgy quality makes you keep your eye on her even when she's not pivotal to the scene.
No surprise that Ann Reinking is a phenomenally talented dancer and truly a marvel to watch, but it's nice that she also displays an easy, husky-voiced naturalness in her non-dancing scenes. Jessica Lange has had such an impressive career that it's easy to forget her debut in King Kong (1976) almost turned her into the Elizabeth Berkley of the '70s. Wisely turning her back on Hollywood's blonde-of-the-month publicity machine, Lange took three years off and reemerged in the small but pivotal role in All That Jazz which successfully showcased her ability to do more than look pretty sitting in an ape's paw.
Flirting with Death
The brilliance that is All That Jazz pretty much extends to everything but the central conceit of the plot (which somehow worked for Fellini and no one else. Rob Marshall's Nine was pretty dismal). Fosse gets Fellini's cinematographer, Giuseppe Rottuno (Fellini Satyricon), to give the film a smoky sheen, the music is sparkling, and the dreamy stylization employed throughout is sometimes breathtakingly inventive. One just wishes they weren't in the service of such meager emotional epiphanies.

In the book, On the Line: The Creation of A Chorus Line, the collective of authors (several members of the original Broadway cast) recall how, after several years of film treatments, director/choreographer Michael Bennett was unable to land on a satisfactory method to translate his show to the screen. All involved in A Chorus Line thought that Fosse had, for all intents and purposes, beat them to the punch and delivered (in a virtuoso eight-minute opening sequence), everything that a screen adaptation of A Chorus Line should have been. And indeed, the opening of All That Jazz is a matchless example of film as storyteller. It's so perfect, it's like a documentary short.

I'm crazy about all of the dancing in All That Jazz. Understandably, most people recall the remarkable "Take Off With Us/ Air-otica" number, but I have a particular fondness for "Bye Bye Love/Life" number that ends the film. A fantasy fever dream/nightmare taking place in the mind of Joe Gideon as he slips away on a hospital bed, this number is outrageous in concept and phenomenal in execution. We're in Ken Russell territory when you have a dying man dressed in sequins (complete with silver open-heart surgery scar) singing his own eulogy to an audience of everyone he's ever encountered in his life, while flanked by gyrating dancers dressed as diagrams of the human circulatory system.  
I never tire of watching this number, as it appeals to both the dancer and film enthusiast in me. Fosse, whose signature style consisted of small moves, isolations, and minimal gestures, always seemed better suited to the movies than the stage. He ushered in the use of the camera and editor as collaborative choreographers, punctuating the rhythms and drawing the eye to the details.

Bob Fosse died in 1987, mere months after the death of his closest professional peer/rival, Michael Bennett. Broadway and dance suffered a loss that year that I don't think it has ever recovered from. Bennett didn't live long enough to leave his stamp on cinema, but lucky for us, Fosse left a recorded legacy that represents the best of cinema dance as art. "Thank you" doesn't begin to cover the debt of gratitude.
Bye-Bye, Love

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2011


  1. All that jazz has to be one of my favourite films, and incredibly inspiring to dancers everywhere, you're right!

    Read my review of All that Jazz at, if you're interested!

    1. Thanks for visiting my blog and providing the link to your post. "All That Jazz" has an enduring appeal that really seems timeless. You capture a lot of what I also feel about the film in your review. Thanks for sharing it!

    2. Georgia XanthopoulouFebruary 15, 2012 at 1:25 PM

      :) Loved your post-to the point when it comes to how Fosse's dance style is for the camera as well!

  2. Replies
    1. Folks, you should check out the link above for a great review of "All That Jazz". Very insightful! Visit Unsung or copy and paste the link.

  3. This is a fantastic review! Love the movie, and love your blog.

    1. Hello Moi
      So nice to hear from a fan of this movie (a big fan, I think!)and for you to be so complimentary is icing on the cake. Glad you enjoyed the review and especially glad you like the blog. You're very kind. Thanks and hope you come back!

  4. What a totally strange film. It's so terribly morbid, yet the big musical number at the's one of the most joyous numbers one could imagine!

    Ben Vereen seemed to be everywhere back in the day. A look at his credits and now I realise why he seemed so familiar--he was a regular on "Webster", plus he was Chicken George in "Roots"!

    As I watched the film, I wondered if the little girl (Erzsebet Foldi) was the real "Nicole Fosse", so how odd to discover that Michelle Gideon was based upon Bob Fosse's daughter. I'm not sure why, but as I watched the film, I wasn't fully connected to the fact that the film was intended as somewhat autobiographical. I guess it had been a while since I really had a good read of the above review.

    Every time I've seen him in a picture, Roy Scheider looks a little rough around the edges, somewhat well-worn, so he was physically ideal for this role (one must take into account his earlier life as a pugulist, plus the fact that he didn't really make an impact in the pictures until he was around 40).

    Surely, Ken, you have those difficult mornings where you look into the mirror and say with some irony: "It's showtime, folks!"

    Between this and films such as "Cabaret" and "Lenny", psychologically, it tells one all that one needs to know about the late Bob Fosse. Speaking of "Lenny", I noticed the Lenny Bruce clone (how could I not?)in "All That Jazz", played by Cliff Gorman. He was uncanny. I see that he played Lenny Bruce on stage. So I take it that Bob Fosse knew Lenny Bruce in real-life?

    1. Hi Mark
      I'm glad you re-visited this film. It definitely has a morbid tone, but has quite a bit of joy in the musical numbers and dancing.

      It's interesting what you say about your not being immediately seizing upon the film being autobiographical. A friend of mine recently saw the film and, while aware of its biographical bent, thought the film was "about" Fosse but directed by someone else! I think such bald narcissism/self-exposure is kind of rare.

      As for Cliff Gorman and Lenny, I have no idea if Fosse knew Lenny Bruce, but I think I recall reading somewhere that Fosse he actually wanted Gorman for his film (he'd seen him in the stage show) but the studio insisted on a name star like Hoffman for boxoffice reasons.
      Oh, and yes, as i get older and teach, those "It's showtime, folks!" morning become ever more frequent! Thanks, Mark!

    2. In Sam Wasson's biography Fosse, there's no mention of Fosse having known Lenny Bruce in real life. In fact, it implies the opposite: Fosse told Julian Barry (who wrote the play "Lenny" and the screenplay of the film), "You've worked on this story for years, you know everything about Lenny, you've read every interview and seen every routine, but I'm new."

  5. Hi Ken,

    I read your piece as part of my research for a cinema programme review:

    Your writing is great - informed and lively. Thanks :-)



    1. Hello Tim
      Thank you very much for your kind compliment, and I'm flattered if you found anything in this post to be helpful in researching your article. i just finished reading your review of "All That Jazz" and very much enjoyed your insights and observations. I especially liked your calling attention to the affection conveyed in the "Everything Old is New Again" number, and cleverly noting how the terrific Leland Palmer "dances rings around" the Joe Gideon. talk about lively writing! I enjoyed it a great deal. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  6. This bewildering movie blew my young mind when it was first released.

    As usual, wonderful writing and insights, Ken!

    1. Hi Thom
      There's quite a bit of a Ken Russell feel to some of the dream/fantasy sequences. I can well imagine you finding it a mind-blower as a young man.
      So amazing an experience on the big screen, isn't it?

    2. Comment for a reader on post "Fosse, Fosse, Fosse, Folsom, Folsom, Folsom."

      "I was 12 years old and made my father take me to the theater to see "All That Jazz". At the height of "Take Off With Us" he asked me, "What kind of filth is this". I immediately replied, "Shut up, I need to see this". He waited in the lobby for me until it ended and he never questioned my viewing tastes again. He also never accompanied me to another movie."

  7. My mother, a lifelong Fosse fan, took me to see this shortly after it had opened and I fell deeply in love with it. The finale is one of the most self-absorbed, over-indulgent, heartbreakingly beautiful dance sequences I've ever seen on film. I was in tears at the end of it and shocked back into reality at the zip of the body bag; however, I immediately started laughing as Ethel Merman began to belt out "No Business Like Show Business".

    1. Hi Andy
      Great memory to share. And if anybody can shock a person back to reality, it's Ethel Merman.

  8. I am certain that this movie would rank highly on my list of "The Worst Movies for Heart Patients", but it certainly looks....interesting and unusual.

  9. Hi, Ken! It's been a while since I visited your blog! I watched "All That Jazz" yesterday for the first time and I was SURE you'd have an essay about it!
    This film was surprising in many ways. I'd read about Fosse's ego and his lack of restraints so I thought this would be a boring self-reference (And sometimes it was, to be honest. Like you I thought he didn't even try to dissect his attitude, just presenting it as bittersweet means for perfection; I'll torture you, but you will be a better dancer; My obsessive personality will make me take seven months to edit a simple movie but it will be an undeniable success; I lie, I cheat, I use people, I scream and curse, but when I die Jessica Lange will be waiting for me all in white. Pffff! The way we see it he wasn't trying to convince the audiences he was on the right track, but trying very hard to convince himself instead. This is the most self-reassuring piece I have ever seen). But his genius is showing and I can't deny him credit: all the dancing scenes were glorious. All of them! Even at the end when he was dying-not-dying and the three women of her life kept coming and going and then coming again, that was beautiful! No other director or coreographer could work with such annoying and repetitive structure and pull that off. I watched it in 2018 and still it felt like this was the future of dancing. Air-otica, OH MY GOODNESS I screamed the moment it begun, he has such a good eye for visuals, like the atmosphere, the windows behind the dancers, the subtle smoke, the sillouettes engaging onto one another. Sexual but never lazy, never taking our primal reactions for granted. And Sandahl Bergman was a beast! Had seen her on Conan when I was a kid and have loved her ever since! ♥
    About his sexuality I also think much of what he did was to project a womanizer image, which makes a big contrast to his feminine qualities (and that he briefly addresses). I believe in ambiguity of character but when we see his work there's no womanizer there: there's always a love for grace and form, admiration for the feminine and it feels way more empowering than objectifying. Also, he flirts constantly with homossexuality, and everytime it appears on his movies it's never really important for the story, it's there because he wants it there. Like in the end of Cabaret or in when we have a subtle moment after Air-otica when one of the producers have this outbreak of un-disguisable desire... None of that is necessary or even important but it's there like a mosquito flying around you that refuses to leave.
    In the end, I loved it. It feels revolutionary and almost 40 years later still sets the bar very high. But I can't wait for Hollywood to listen to you and make a movie specifically about women who gladly follow this self destructive types (Just thought about "The Beguiled" for a second... Oh God, wanna watch that again now)

    1. Hello, João Paulo
      Congrats on finally seeing ALL THAT JAZZ! Your “fresh eyes” perspective is quite illuminating, for I would have no idea if the film held up for young audiences. The dancing IS quite exquisite, isn’t it? And your observations about the Air-otica number and Fosse’s eye (for dance form and the camera) are aware. His work IS sexy, but not in that commodified “stripper pole” stuff that goes for sexy dancing in music videos I see today. He was able to convey the physicality of sensuality, not the obvious-rather banal-tits and ass-shaking style so favored by many of today’s ill-trained pop stars.

      You picked up on a lot in the film, I especially liked how you noted that he is sometimes annoying macho, but through his filmmaking he is not so dishonest as not to address/reference his bisexual/feminine side. Very sharp of you to see that, I think.
      Anyhow, I loved reading your take on the film and your exasperation with the self-serving Svengali approach to his overweening egoism (reminds me of The Slender Thread…hate to think this trope is still alive and well). I never saw the film about artist Freda Kahlo, but perhaps that movie was one to treat a woman’s obsession with her art as seriously as these male-centric films do.
      Thank you for checking back here and contributing your extremely thoughtful (and thought-provoking) comments on a film I simply adore.
      Always happy to know that art endures. Thanks!

  10. The first time I saw ALL THAT JAZZ, the wonderful number "Everything Old Is New Again" with Ann Reinking and Erzsebet Foldi felt like something I'd seen before. Then it hit me - it's "Under the Bamboo Tree" from MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS. I think Fosse must have been influenced by it to some degree, there are so many similarities, especially in the set up.

    By the way, my favorite dance number in movie history is "From This Moment on" from KISS ME KATE, with Fosse, Carol Haney, Tommy Rall, Ann Miller, Bobby Van and some anonymous girl. The Fosse style is invented in that number with Carol Haney, while Tommy Rall does the must thrilling leaps and jetees I've ever seen. Ann Miller deserved a medal just for keeping up with him.

    1. You're the first person I know to see a connection to "Everything Old Is New Again" & "Under the Bamboo Tree" - which I can only recognize conceptually, but I love that I'd never thought to think of how they are both kid/adult in-home performances.
      I confess to never having been able to make it through KISS ME KATE, but I took a YouTube look at the number you reference and it indeed has some spectacular dancing. Simply breathtaking at parts.
      The sort that not only is rare in films today, but when such dance talent is assembled (such as in the horrendous CATS) filmmakers screw up the magic by editing it within an inch of its life. no one keeps the camera still and allows the dance to be seen.

    2. I'm not the American, so I saw Meet Me in St-Luis only today (I'm 55 yo). When I watched "Under the Bamboo Tree"
      I though "My Gosh, it's the episode that Bob Fosse made homage in All That Jazz"
      I googled it and, so, I found discussion with You're the first person I know to see a connection to "Everything Old Is New Again" & "Under the Bamboo Tree"
      I'm the second one, Kip! )))

    3. Very perceptive! You and Kip have a good movie-reference eye.
      And it must have been wonderful to see Meet Me in St. Louis" for the first time. Thank you for reading this post and for commenting!

  11. Who was the other cardiovascular dancer with Ann in the final number?

    1. That is actress/dancer Kathryn Doby. She plays Joe Gideon's dance captain and assistant-chorographer in the movie. A role Doby also assumed for Bob Fosse in real life.