Through With Counting the Stars Above
Joe Gideon is slowly committing suicide. He doesn’t seem aware of it, though he might be, a little bit. One cannot sustain themselves for very long on a diet of cigarettes and amphetamines, while working 18 hour days choreographing a musical, editing a film, juggling multiple sexual partners, and half-assing being a single parent, but he’s certainly willing to try. When the inevitable heart attack finally comes, he doesn’t just ignore his doctors’ advice, he openly defies it, throwing parties in his hospital room and inviting women young enough to be his daughter into his bed. Relaxing and taking better care of himself can come later. He’s Joe Goddamn Gideon, and he’s gonna live forev—
All That Jazz technically qualifies as a biopic, though the names are changed and, like the similar 8 ½, lacks a lot of the structural elements. Other than an embarrassing encounter with topless burlesque dancers when he’s a teenager, we see nothing of his past. There’s no “rise to fame” montage, no darkest hour before the dawn – if anything, it’s only the darkest hour. The film focuses on a relatively short period, maybe a couple months at the most, in Joe’s life, or rather, Bob Fosse’s life. Fosse co-wrote and directed it, and while you’d expect a biopic directed by its subject to be self-aggrandizing at best, All That Jazz is unsparing in its portrayal of his barely disguised alter ego.
Rather than focusing on his triumphs, such as winning an Oscar, an Emmy, and a Tony all in the same year, it’s about his unhealthy habits, professional struggles, and failed relationships, with Fosse’s ex-girlfriend Ann Reinking portraying the character based on herself (though Fosse reportedly still made her audition for the part). Despite surviving open heart surgery in 1974, and even recovering well enough to return to choreography and directing (indeed, Fosse would live for over a decade after surgery, while still smoking up to five packs of cigarettes a day), he took a different direction in the movie, asking well, what if I had died instead?
Much of the final act of All That Jazz takes place in the hospital, as Joe (Roy Scheider) starts to realize that he might not be able to wisecrack his way out of a third and potentially fatal heart attack. He escapes his room and spends a delirious evening wandering around the hospital, comforting another patient and enjoying a singalong with a friendly orderly, all while ranting and begging God to spare his life. “What’s the matter,” he asks, looking up at the ceiling. “Don’t you like musical comedy?” The excursion drains him of his last bit of strength and he’s strapped back into bed, as we see, in some alternate universe, a healthier Joe, stage makeup being applied to his face by Angelique (Jessica Lange), the beautiful young woman he’s been chatting with since the beginning of the film.
They flirt, she seems to find him charming, as most women do, but initially there’s a distance between them. The more Joe has to stop and grit his teeth against the pain in his chest, however, the more their glances linger, like a couple who’s just starting to figure out how they feel about each other. He’s both entranced by and afraid of her. Nevertheless, she gets him ready, and then watches from the audience, as he makes his final appearance on the “great stage of life,” according to master of ceremonies O’Connor Flood (Ben Vereen). Despite Flood describing everyone else he’s appeared on stage with as a “great entertainer, a great humanitarian, and my dear friend,” Joe is introduced as “a so-so entertainer, not much of a humanitarian, and this cat was never nobody’s friend.” Despite that harsh introduction, the audience is packed, consisting entirely of every single person, past and present, who’s had even the most remote impact on Joe’s life. Even the topless burlesque dancers are there, as Joe steps out from behind the scenes and takes center stage.
In an era when musicals were all but dead and gone (and they still haven’t made a robust comeback), All That Jazz ends with a ten minute long song and dance number. The production went over budget before a second studio was brought in to provide additional financing, and one can assume it all went here, perhaps the most extravagant ending to any film ever, with a song that’s partially based on the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love,” but evolved into something that’s a little rock, a little gospel, a little funk, and very, very Broadway. Even if he wasn’t credited as the choreographer, all the Fosse dance trademarks are there, the rolled shoulders, the sideways shuffling, the fluid, erotically charged movement. Just consider that for a moment: Bob Fosse essentially choreographed his own funeral service, allowing himself through Joe to say goodbye and make amends for the pain he’s caused. “At least I won’t have to lie to you anymore,” he tells his ex-wife, Audrey (Leland Palmer), who’s based on Fosse’s real life ex-wife Gwen Verdon…who worked with Fosse behind the scenes, making this perhaps the most dizzyingly, brilliantly meta movie ever made.
New viewers might find the number aggressively 70s, with its laser beam sound effects and KISS makeup on the backup band. It’s a little corny at times, like most Broadway productions, but funny, joyful and exhilarating too. It’s also eerie, particularly when you note who’s in the audience watching the celebration of Joe’s life wind down. Angelique is there, and so are Joe’s doctors, grimly looking on while everyone around them cheers and applauds. They’re waiting, because they know nobody can keep dancing forever.
He’s going to keep trying, though. Just when you think the whole thing is starting to wind down, there’s a key change, and Joe is still at it, continuing to defy the odds (and maybe himself a little). That’s what he does, he’s an entertainer, and, despite that much of All That Jazz seems powered on self-loathing, the audience loves him for it, wildly applauding, screaming for more, tears of gratitude for being a cast member in the story of his life running down their faces.
Then the lights go down, and Joe’s doctor looks at his watch.
As much as Joe fought being laid up in bed, even tearing out his IV line so he could escape his room, he’s alright with finally getting a chance to stop dancing. He doesn’t need the attention and adulation any more. As he makes his way down a passageway from backstage, Angelique is waiting for him. Joe looks a little scared, and deeply exhausted, but mostly, more than anything else, relieved. He’ll finally be in the arms of the woman he’s been chasing his whole life.