Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) is a successful choreographer and director, both of film and theatre, but he didn't get that way by not applying himself to the task in hand, even though it is contributing to his deteriorating health. So once more he embarks on another stage show, auditioning the hopefuls wanting to be part of the cast and whittling them down to a manageable number, as all the while he tries to salvage his film about a stand-up comedian in the editing room. Joe is an workaholic, but that's not all that's killing him...
He has the booze, cigarettes, pills, and emotional turmoil of his womanising to contend with as well in this lightly disguised version of the life and career of Bob Fosse written, starring and choreographed by the man himself in Felliniesque manner. At the time this was released to what's best described as a mixed reaction, the most common term applied to All That Jazz was "self-indulgent", something Fosse was baffled by as he thought he was bringing his life into his art, as all great artists do. Or that's the common notion when talking about a creative talent, that if they have not sent a part of their soul into their work then that work is not worth contemplating, yet this was a double-edged sword as there was always going to be someone saying, "Thanks, but no thanks - not interested!"
So if Fosse, an undoubted master of his crafts, was telling you all about what it was like to be Bob Fosse in revealingly critical manner and you found that was more than you could take, then who was to blame? Was it him, for putting so much of himself out there that we saw the dark side laid out before us, or was it us for wanting to know so much about artists and then complaining when they didn't come across as someone we would actually like? That's not to say Scheider was lacking in charm in his portrayal, quite the opposite as his world-weary take on life may have been born out of a jaded cynicism, but he made you relate to what the Gideon character was going through no matter how resistable he might have been should you stop to think about how he treated others.
Plenty of people in Gideon's life, and by extension Fosse's life, appreciated him, even loved him, but there's a disdain for that sort of person which is displayed with uncomfortable regularity, as if the only true thing that mattered was the shows, and while many performers did them for the acclaim and entertainment of others, according to this in Fosse's case it was for purely selfish reasons. He was pleasing himself, which explained his fondness for sleeping around, smoking, booze and drugs which were destroying him, and the way he couldn't accept his lifestyle which he so obsessively applied himself to was spelling his doom. Yet that doesn't quite paint the whole picture, as while there was that strong element of self-aggrandisation, it came at a cost that was not merely physical.
Fans of the director find themselves returning to All That Jazz because it's a despatch from the frontlines of showbiz from a man who knew all too well the ups and downs that entailed, but there were those who responded to the bleak humour he brought out in his biggest obsession: he was going to die soon. Actually he had a few years left in him, and managed to direct another film (Star 80, another one about death) in the meantime, which must have satisfied him to flaunt his survival in the face of the fast-approaching end of his life. Jessica Lange played the Angel of Death, as much a lover as the other women he gets to know, except she's actually one whose embrace he shuns no matter how attractive she is, which leads to the fantastical and most infamous sequences. Before we've had a mix of biography, Gideon's dance numbers and his fractured private life, then Fosse turns truly audacious with his surrogate's heart surgery staged with real operation footage as the dancing goes on around him. Or was this actually repellent? It's a mark of the tension that it could easily be both.