There are few secrets in All That Jazz; the film immediately forecasts where it’s going, with clear shots of star Roy Scheider in the hospital amid the other quickly cut montage sequences. But these are flash forwards, as opposed to the present action and then we’re seeing flashback. Because we’re actually not even seeing “reality” yet. First we meet Jessica Lange, mysterious, magical, dressed in white, in Scheider’s head maybe. These sequences are—except when director Fosse and editor Alan Heim cut them to be so—disconnected from the main narrative. They’re even disconnected from Scheider’s eventual hospital bed hallucinations. They’re not in his imagination, not in his consciousness… maybe it’s his soul. Doesn’t really matter. Putting a noun to it doesn’t change how it functions, giving Fosse and co-writer Robert Alan Aurthur a way to do some show not tell exposition on Scheider’s history as well as give him an egoless outlet.
The film’s present action begins with Broadway director Scheider casting for his next production. Fosse goes through the introduction to Lange, then the quick cut montage sequence of Scheider gearing up for the day (Visine, Dexedrine, cigarettes, positive affirmations), and then gets to the first big dance number. The sequence—Scheider cutting auditioning dancers, then working with the ones who make it—is breathtaking. Set to a live performance (which adds a whole other layer) of George Benson covering “On Broadway,” it’s not just about Fosse’s composition, which showcases both the individual artistry of the dancers but also the scale of the audition as well as Scheider’s place in it, and he and Heim’s editing, which captures movement peerlessly, but also introducing the main supporting cast. Well, minus Ann Reinking. But we meet ex-wife Leland Palmer and daughter Erzsebet Foldi and then the show guys—producers William LeMassena and Robert Hitt, accountant David Margulies, song writer Anthony Holland—from all their various reactions, we get some grounding for Scheider. The show guys are able to tell his not show-minded interest in one of the dancers (Deborah Geffner), which Foldi and Palmer are able to pick up on as well, though they react differently. But Scheider’s not just doing the show, he’s also cutting together a movie, The Stand-Up, about a comedian (played by Cliff Gorman), and running the editing team ragged. It’s also causing Scheider’s contact guy with the studio—Max Wright—nuts.
It’s at the screening of the day’s cuts we meet Reinking, the girlfriend, which is just before we get to see what kind of womanizer everyone’s dealing with. Since leaving the auditions and editing his movie to exhaustion, Scheider’s also had time to ring up Geffner to make a date.
There’s a lot of humanity to Scheider already. The audition sequence, when he’s cutting people, there’s great care in the film to show his hesitations and sympathies. The scene between Scheider and Geffner is where we get to see how Scheider’s empathy has got a strange formula to it. He’s heartbreakingly rude to Geffner, absolutely piggish, but also aware of how his behavior plays out. The asides with Lange have set up Scheider’s convoluted, sorted sexual history with women—Keith Gordon plays him in the flashbacks to working as a young teen in burlesque theaters, where the dancers tease (and don’t tease)—and then we get to see the repercussions of his devout philandering play out with Reinking. Geffner is, apparently, to Reinking as Reinking was to Palmer. Only Palmer’s Scheider’s creative muse—he’s only doing the show so she can headline it—and Reinking’s clearly a good dancer. Geffner is not, adding further complications and giving us a chance to see how Scheider works with his dancers.
The only person Scheider can’t manage—though with Palmer, it’s more she lets him manage her—is Foldi. There’s this amazing scene where Scheider and Foldi dance, with her trying to talk to him about settling down and him workaholicing his way through it, and even though he’s in charge of choreographing the dance, everything she says takes him a little by surprise. The relationship between Scheider and Foldi—well, Foldi and everyone (Reinking and Palmer) have an amazing relationship. In the chaos Scheider drums up so he can control his creative efforts, Foldi’s the only other one able to weather it. Because, like Scheider, she’s native to it.
Scheider’s just cracked the show when the heart troubles go from giving him pause to requiring hospitalization. It’s approximately halfway through the movie. Then there’s the medical drama parts, which race by—once Scheider’s condition improves, Fosse does a lengthy montage sequence, cutting between various moments during Scheider’s hospital stay and some external factors—Foldi’s experience of her dad being hospitalized, the show guys trying to get another director (John Lithgow). Fosse will drop longer scenes in the montage, kind of taking a break before going back to spinning around, seeing all the various moments. It’s all fairly light. Lighter than anything else has been in the film to this point.
So when Scheider’s inability to control his urges hits again and he takes a turn for the worse, it’s time for the hallucination musical numbers. There are four of them, a showcase for Reinking, Palmer, Foldi, and then women in general. They’re all amazing. But whether or not they’re enough to keep Lange’s symbolic lips of Scheider’s….
The choreography of all the sequences is startling. None of them aren’t great. But then there’s how Fosse shoots them too. How Giuseppe Rotunno lights them. How Heim cuts them. It’s extraordinary work.
Scheider’s performance is great. Then Palmer. Then Foldi. Palmer doesn’t get any expository devices with angelic Jessica Langes to establish her character. She barely gets it in the script. She’s got to do it all with looks. She does it. And Foldi’s excellent. Everyone else is good… Reinking has to play a lot with a stone face and she does it well. The show guys are all good. They’re kind of the comic relief. Even as they cover their asses.
The music, the dancing, the direction, the technicals… all of it is exceptional. Heim and Fosse’s editing—which is the subject of the movie in the movie subplot, so the editing is begging attention—is singular.
All That Jazz is a peerless motion picture.