Review: 'All That Jazz'

By: 
Ben Miles

It’s been two-years since live theater closed curtains. During this period of no staged drama, musicals or comedy we were relegated to the confines of late-night television comedians, sans in- person audiences. During this time of quarantine and pandemic isolation, I’ve been directing this theater column to literary, movie (mostly documentaries) and filmed stage reviews, i.e., “Hamilton.” Now live theater is slowly appearing on the boards again.

The next best thing to experiencing a live musical, however, which I learned during the shutdown, is watching a movie musical or movies about musicals. That’s where the genius of Bob Fosse comes into play. In the award-winning “All That Jazz” – released in 1979, which tracks the addictive, work-obsessed life of Fosse, who also provided direction, choreography and shares screenplay credit with Robert Alan Aurthur for this frank, flamboyant film – we get a glimpse into the multitude of demands, the many costs and the mighty intensity of show business.

Joe Gideon is the character who serves as Fosse’s alter ego and is played wryly and authentically by Roy Schneider, who was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his charismatic performance. Gideon is a hard drinker, an amphetamine abuser and a notorious womanizer. But he’s also, like Fosse himself, a fountain of creativity. Part of Gideon’s flirtatious behavior is aimed at the enchanting and inviting “angel of death,” Angelique, played gorgeously by Jessica Lang, who appears as the embodiment of Gideon’s death wish and his ongoing, desperate dance with and through mortality.

Under the time and money pressures of directing a film titled “The Stand-Up” while also directing his controversial and boldly sensual Broadway musical, NY/LA , Gideon begins suffering a heart ailment, as did Fosse during this pressurized period of his laudable career(this all mirrors Fosse’s experience directing the movie Lenny while helming the direction and choreography for the musical, “Chicago”; the title, “All That Jazz,” is taken from a show tune featured in that long-running Broadway hit).

Earnest Hemingway is credited with remarking “Every true story ends in death.” Bob Fosse died at age 60 in 1987. But in “All That Jazz” Fosse foresaw this truth in the musical dramatization of his life. In fact, Fosse choreographed his own death scene, which serves as the denouement to “All That Jazz.” It’s a riveting finale set to the tune of “Bye Bye Love” (lyrics changed to “Bye Bye Life”) with brilliant accompaniment by triple-threat Ben Vereen, as O’Connor Flood, a Sammy Davis Jr. type persona.

“All That Jazz” is bookended by two tunes that have become show biz classics: George Benson’s rendition of “On Broadway” starts the show and the show ends with Ethel Merman’s “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” But in between those musical numbers we witness an array of dancers and dance numbers, get a troubling glimpse of the creative process, see powerful performances, not only from Scheider, but also from Leland Palmer as a stand in for Fosse’s wife, Gwen Verdon, and the lusciously leggy Ann Reinking as Gideon’s current love interest.

“All That Jazz” is an existential musical that remains a must see (and a must see again) for fans of musicals and philosophers of all persuasions. It’s available On-Demand and streams on Turner Classic Movies (TCM).

ben@beachcomber.news

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