Ugly Honesty: An Appreciation of "All That Jazz"
“Do you believe in love?”
“I believe in saying ‘I love you.’”
What do you think the tone of those lines are? Just reading them, divorced from their context? An exchange between estranged lovers? An intimate meditation on the frailty of love? Well, sort of. It is both of those things, but the estranged lovers are a Broadway choreographer and the Angel of Death, both having a laughing good time.
All That Jazz is hard to talk about, if only because it shares it’s name with a famous song from the musical Chicago. That’s not a coincidence, the man who created Chicago, Bob Fosse, was the director of All That Jazz. Bob Fosse, for those who don’t know, was a master choreographer who worked on Broadway for many years, and became a master filmmaker as well, directing critically acclaimed films like Cabaret and Lenny, Lenny being a film about the life of controversial comedian Lenny Bruce (this aside has a purpose, trust me). While trying to manage so may separate projects in the mid 70s, Fosse almost worked himself to death and required open heart surgery.
The reason I’m saying all of this is because All That Jazz is a film about Broadway choreographer Joe Gideon who also works as a filmmaker editing his most recent work (about a comedian), almost works himself to death, and requires open heart surgery.
To call All That Jazz autobiographical would be the understatement of the century. It’s a fiercely personal look into Bob Fosse’s life, the good, the bad, and the horrendously ugly. Joe Gideon is a funhouse mirrored reflection of Fosse, almost literally in certain scenes. We see Gideon as a fiercely dedicated artist, but we also see him as a failure in personal relationships, constantly sleeping with other women while blowing off custody of his daughter with a former lover. Some of these scenes are played with complete realism, and others are played in complete fantasy. Either way, it’s a profoundly ugly look at the artistic impulse and one that feels too honest.
That might be the reason I admire it so much. A lot of my own work over the years features pieces of myself (my one-act play The Deer Bones features the most of my actual life), and I tend towards romanticizing the past. The tendency is subconscious, and it's a tendency I usually correct in subsequent drafts. The more honest my work is, the more satisfied I am with it. That comes at the cost of the work being brutal to write, but it's always better for it.
I'm happy to report that my life isn't as tumultuous as Bob Fosse's, but his work should always be a reminder to artists that it's worth flipping the lens on ourselves. And to make sure that everything that lens sees is accurately portrayed.