Too often reduced to categorization as American theater reworking of 8 ½, All That Jazz doesn’t need likening, however favorable, to that Italian masterwork to make a case for its greatness. Joe Gideon, the overworked choreographer and director, who like Guido is defined by the women in his life, also bears striking resemblance to his creator, the legendary Bob Fosse, and the fascinating psychosis of the source material imbues All That Jazz with one of the richest protagonists in Hollywood history. Roy Schieder plays Gideon – one of the greatest turns ever recognized by the Academy – and breaths life into the mad genius by showing his dreams and obsessions, his vices and vulnerabilities. He’s hampered with more than just creative block; Fosse saddles Gideon with a death drive that not a decade later finally caught up to him in reality. Schieder plays him like a force of nature, and that’s the only reason we believe him brazen enough to spit in the face of another force of nature, mortality, as he does throughout the film.
All That Jazz is staged as a battle Gideon cannot win, but that’s hardly for lack of trying. As he burns himself out, his erotically charged musical numbers move straight to his mind, where they become even grander than they were at the theater. He immerses himself in these fantasies up to the bitter end, and Fosse marvelous contracts the vibrant backstage world of his dreams with the bleak reality of hospital rooms. He meets death practically dancing on his own grave, which may not be winning, but as far as big exits go, it sets the bar exceedingly high.
It’s also the peak of an entire genre. Fosse removed frivolity from the musical, something that was really wearing on the medium by the late 60s. There was more to this than merely confining songs to the stage, as Cabaret does. All That Jazz makes use of all variety of musical numbers, from choreographed dance on stage and in the rehearsal room, to the lovingly executed routine Gideon’s daughter and girlfriend leap into at his apartment, to the impromptu grand song and dance numbers recalling everything from Busby Berkley to disco that string together the final days of his life. Firmly grounded in the genre, yet stripped of all its worst tendencies, All That Jazz may actually be the most palatable musical out there, and if nothing since has come close to its brilliance, they can be forgiven. Like I said, tough act to follow.