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  • Writer's pictureShannon Heibler

All That Jazz (1979)

I first saw this movie when I was too young for it. Or too naïve, maybe. I saw an edited version on Bravo (back when Bravo covered the arts) and it moved me in ways I didn't understand. I loved the gleeful artifice of it. Every bit of it was designed even the bits that take place in "real life." I wanted to be an actor then and it scared me in a really thrilling way. I rediscovered it as an adult who had given up (at that point) on a career in theater and it moved me in ways that surprised me. I watched this absolutely toxic/tragic person and found myself aching for bits of his life. And now, a couple Fosse biographies and a lot of experience in professional theater later, it hits me in a whole new way. The last few times I've watched it I've mostly been blown away by the absolute gall of Bob Fosse to write and direct a somehow scathing, sentimental, and, from all accounts, honest depiction of his own life. I've always loved Fosse's work. It's sexy in a way I'll never be (and that's truly fine by me) and brutal but glossy. The balance is masterful. (As I write that, I realize I shouldn't be that surprised he pulled off the dichotomies of All That Jazz.) I frequently insist that young design students watch The Rich Man's Frug from Sweet Charity (go on: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DSSlWfOCgLw I'll wait.). But Fosse as a human... well I had to stop watching Fosse/Verdon because it was too depressing. Though after I was reminded that Lin-Manuel Miranda plays Roy Scheider playing Bob Fosse in the finale... I may have to go back.


(I think of this perfectly bizarre plane orgy dance number whenever I listen to Pippin. With apologies to Stephen Schwartz.)


There are some themes in this movie that I struggle with and others that I Struggle with. Small-s struggle would cover the tired trope that we allow genius to be destructive or even that it needs to be destructive, particularly in the arts. I would have hoped we'd be over that by now after #metoo and Black Lives Matter but too many incidents are still hand waved by the powers that be with a "well he's so talented/the audience loves her" attitude. It's gross. There are plenty of talented people who don't treat everyone around them like shit - let's celebrate those people instead. So watching a movie about an abusive but charming genius is less appealing now than it was when I was 15.


I capital-S Struggle with the movie's central preoccupation: mortality. Personally, I've spent too much of my relatively short life wishing it was shorter. That's behind me, I hope. Now, I think of death with more curiosity than fear - and as an atheist, curiosity about death feels like a sort of absurd optimism. Do I want an extended dissection of my life with the angel of death (quick aside to acknowledge how stunning Jessica Lange is) when I go? Probably not. And I think this movie struggles when it draws out the end. But quick snuffing of this brief candle? No, not that either. I was surprised at how moved I was by the "Bye Bye Life" sequence this time around. My attention was drifting going into it but that number is mesmerizing and the walk towards Angelique at the end found me forgetting to breathe. In those brief seconds, the journey Scheider takes us on via the smallest of shifts in his expression proves that he was more than worthy of this role, and it's a shame that he didn't get more work of this caliber. Also, Roy Scheider can Get It.


In terms of mortality and art, I'm a little sad that the movie doesn't more closely examine the ideas of what we leave behind as artists. Particularly in theater. One of the most incredible (and painful) things about theater as art is how fleeting it is. It can really only exist in the moment, even when it's recorded. (Because when it's recorded, it's something else. An observed tree falling in a forest.) It makes me wonder if that's part of why Fosse, and by extension Gideon, shifted into directing movies. Something to leave behind.

Random thoughts: -What a gift to be able to watch Ann Reinking [pick a verb].

-I adore Leland Palmer in the Not Gwen Verdon role more and more with each viewing. The scene where she's dancing and casually tearing her ex a new one is sublime.

-That opening audition sequence though. A delightful reminder to be grateful that I'm a designer. I'm not cut out for the actor life.

-Another trope I'm over (probably because I just don't get it): the broken genius with mommy issues.

-I used to think the heart surgery/insurance scene was genius. Now I think it's a little ham fisted, but affective.

-I used to think the use of "There's No Business Like Show Business" over the final shot was tacky. Now I think it's gallows humor perfected.

-This is the first Albert Wolsky costume design in my collection and it's just fabulous. He's such a versatile designer but his absurdist stuff (this, Toys) are naturally my favorites.

-Roy Scheider can get it.


It's showtime, folks. Watercolor.


Takeaways:

-Hoh boy. I like it, I do, but this was tough. I knew what this movie's project would be awhile ago. I think I'd hoped to be further along in my progress down there. But two of my least favorite things in the world are mirrors and my face. A third might be "drawing hands" but there are koalas to consider. This one was never going to be easy.

-Watercolor washes befuddle me. Gotta work on that.

-Much love to my Liebschen for taking reference photos for me and dealing with my grumpiness as I spent a lot of time looking at my face this week.


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