It’s big, it’s colorful, it’s brassy, it’s as egotistical as movies get—and it’s pretty pleased with its own cleverness. It’s Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979), and whatever else it is, it’s not exactly like anything else—even if parts of it are like a lot of other things. In fact one of its original reviewers tagged it as a combination of “the worst of Fellini, the worst of Ken Russell and the the worst of 1940s Hollywood.” It’s not hard to see why. The Fellini is inescapable. Fosse almost might have called the film 8 1/2 with its story of a director trying to pull off projects and deal with his increasingly tangled personal life—not to mention the various mystical embellishments that crop up. The Russell mostly lies in the tone of the fantasy sequences, though there are more specific references. And the ‘40s Hollywood—well, let’s just say that the “Bye Bye Love” number is tackier than the worst kitsch ever to come from that era.
Probably the most remarkable thing about the film was it’s generally positive reception at the box office and with Oscars (more with nominations than awards). By 1979 a reaction against this kind of movie had set in as film slid further and further toward what would become the mediocrity of the 1980s. Now, having said that, I have to confess that while I can admire Fosse’s film, I don’t like it at all. The Fosse character (Roy Scheider) is too unsympathetic for me to care very much that he’s driving himself to an early grave—even if the trip will be made by way of a tasteless jazz dance and song number. That’s a “top marks for originality, zero for execution” sort of thing.
It doesn’t help that for every lively musical outburst, fantasy sequence or other screwy idea, there is going to be some mind-numbingly boring dialogue scene. Does it help that these are occasionally meant to depict mind-numbing boredom? No, because they’re still boring. Regardless, the film remains a fascinating work—maybe as much for the things it gets wrong as for the things it gets right.