[The following is a belated entry in last year's Blind Spots series.]
If Joe can barely get out of bed in the morning, however, he comes alive near a stage. Fosse establishes Joe’s firm control of a stage production with a montage that studies the auditioning dancers, first trained on the whole cast of hopefuls as the unworthy make themselves known through their out-of-sync movements, shots lasting just long enough for Joe and his crew to spot those who don’t belong and pull them aside to gently let them down. As the crew whittles down to fewer and fewer finalists, and the shots last a bit longer, honed to a stretched leg or a struck pose as practice turns to mastery of the choreography, until at last a flurry of shots show the chosen dancers performing a spin, each in the same spot in the frame and moving with such synchronous precision that it looks as if the viewer is watching some many-faced being transforming over and over in a repeating motion. Within minutes of screen time, Joe has judiciously whittled and sculpted a cast, giving the impression of consummate professionalism.
Soon, however, it becomes evident that Joe has bought too confidently into this image of himself, and it is about to eat him alive. While preparing the Broadway show, Joe is also caught in post-production for his movie about a controversial stand-up comedian (an obvious stand-in for Fosse’s Lenny). Here the cracks are visible, as Joe sits in a screening room reviewing footage that drags on for too long in shots that intentionally do the same. The rapid-fire, in-his-element shots of the choreography are replaced by languid studies of both the film-within-the-film and the miserable reactions of the crew watching it drag on. In work as in his wild personal life, Joe is a man of constant motion, and a project like this clearly flummoxes him.
Splitting time between his two looming gigs taxes a system that already relies on chemical stimulation for full operation. Everyone by now knows what it means in a movie when a character so much as coughs once, and Joe hacks like a TB patient. His shambles of a personal life is represented by three women: his younger girlfriend Katie (Ann Reinking), who has not yet tired of his neglectfulness; ex-wife Audrey (Leland Palmer), who gave up on him as a person but still looks to him for artistic direction; and daughter Michelle (Erzsébet Földi), who just wants to see him every now and then. The women are united by their frustration with him, their desire to see him succeed but also to pull back from the brink. Fosse sketches these grounding elements of Joe’s life in broad strokes, but that befits his background in musical theater, in which simple setups act as a foundation for complex orchestration.
And complex the film certainly becomes, at least on an aesthetic level. All That Jazz takes place behind the scenes, yet its musical numbers, all necessarily limited by the smaller spaces of practice studios and other rooms, are expansive, with stylized lighting and dense casts of dancers that stretch every performing area. This physical boundary-pushing often coincides with risqué choreography, especially in a number that features dancer in various state of undress, undulating in one writhing mass of androgynous, pansexual flesh as producers look on, mortified, muttering under their breath that such a display could never be put on a Broadway stage. “Well, I think we just lost the family audience,” moans one of them, leaving the audience to wonder how many times Fosse heard that in his career, and what sort of things he might have foisted on a crowd where bet-hedging producers seeking to please everyone not a hindrance.
Yet the film’s greatest pleasures are not the numbers it mounts as the show’s pre-production but the manner in which the song and dance starts to creep into Joe’s grimmer reality. Even at the top of the film, the exhausted director hallucinates conversations with an angel of death (Jessica Lange) in a sparsely decorated void that gradually fills with objects and people as Joe recounts his sins, but his heart problems accelerate the bleeding of his art into his personal life. Fosse’s direction continues to work in the grittier milieu of contemporary Hollywood films, but he adds back the fantastical staging that classic musicals had even when no one was singing. Late in the film, Joe sits in a hospital mess with another man as they commiserate, and stacked chairs around them throw shadows that turn a dull setting into something more vivid while maintaining its sense of drab stagnation. Most impressive of all is a sequence alternating between a meeting of the Broadway show’s backers and Joe’s open-heart surgery, their excitement at the prospect of maximizing profits on the back of Joe’s potential death lending an almost operatic flair to the ironic intercutting.
If the greed of the money men makes Joe seem like an effigy for Fosse’s self-martyrdom, however, nothing could be further than the truth. All That Jazz may play in the same sandbox as 8 ½ and its many descendants, but where those films (even Fellini’s more self-critical one) tend to prop up the artist as put-upon creator, Fosse admits that the vast majority of his obstacles are self-imposed. Joe may have ambitions tempered by bean counters, but he is also manipulative—“Fuck him, he never picks me” complains one cut dancer, to which another replies, “I did fuck him, and he didn’t pick me, either!”—and egocentric in that way that only deeply insecure people can be. As personal and self-directed as the film is, though, its bitter but thoughtfully mounted mockery of various artistic follies serves perfectly well as a final statement on the soon-to-implode New Hollywood movement. Fosse wasn’t just proving he could hang with the Young Turks, he bypassed them to show them how it would all end.