All That Jazz

Film Review by Dean Duncan May 8, 2015

It’s something of a commonplace to note that Bob Fosse’s semi-autobiographical film was inspired by, or is a contemplation of, Federico Fellini’s . That’s apt, and it’s a productive text-to-text connection. There are more of those, though, and they’re not necessarily so exalted, or exalting. How about Visconti’s The Damned, or late Pasolini? Utter corruption, utterly contemptible, even more for all its dollops of sentimental hogwash. It is true that like Fellini’s film, All That Jazz is a pretty searing bit of self-criticism, but at the same time it’s also something of a self-celebration. It’s a contemplation/celebration of the musical genre as well, which on the face of it is fine. But what are we celebrating here? Here, basically, is a (rotten) version of Golddiggers of 1933. They’re saucy, but aren’t show people great? Well, no. It wasn’t Xanadu after all; this must be why the musical died. The breakdown of the Hollywood studio system and, separately and simultaneously, the breakdown of the codes of cinematic conduct allowed all that incipient narcissism—and all that omni-gendered promiscuity—to come out of the id and swamp the whole organism, the whole soul.

That last observation does not just apply to musicals, of course. Actually, All That Jazz reminds me a lot of Paddy Chayevsky and Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976), another powerful piece of brazen artistry which strikes me as being similarly horrific. Are you tempted to remind me that that one was also self-reflexively satirical, and that I just must not get it? Well, that is also a brazen strategy, and a bullying one too. You’re tempted to call plagues on both their houses.

Also, I really like this film’s overcutting and zoominess. The celebrated “On Broadway” number is quite exciting. Mr. Scheider looks very good, and certainly gives himself to the role. The ex-wife/Gwen Verdon role is pretty poignant, and Leland Palmer’s dignity in essaying the part—and let’s be fair; Fosse had something to do with that—does serve to counter some of the surrounding nonsense.

There’s a practically pornographic musical number here. It is, of course, quite aware of the fact. It’s plot implausible, and even silly. It’s also quite amazing. I guess that’s the power of sexual impulse for you, elementally overwhelming, and so often leaving shambles in its wake.

The kid is cute. Ms. Reinking has some set of gams. The number that the two of them stage for daddy is so bathetic that it makes you want to barf. Then again, it is connected to a poignant extra-cinematic reality. This objectionable autobiography is far from being exclusively objectionable, especially when we make the effort and make the connections.