Looking for connections between an artist’s work and their personal life is a tricky business. No doubt, the connections are there, but generally they’re much more complicated and convoluted than we can imagine. Still, we look for clues to their motives and their manias, their politics and their passions. And at times, the work an artist does seems to reflect their life so clearly, it’s hard not to see it as autobiography.
Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz has many clear connections to the director’s life. The main character, Joe Gideon, is a former dancer who graduated to choreography and then became a director, moving between stage and film. All these things echo Fosse’s own experience. And to take it even farther, Gideon is a compulsive worker who keeps himself going with drugs and booze, chasing one woman after another, madly trying to juggle work and relationships. These things also reflect Fosse’s own life.
In an audio commentary on the DVD I watched, editor Allan Heim says that when he was working on the film with Fosse, he couldn’t help calling the main character Bob. This angered the director, who apparently didn’t want people to assume that Joe Gideon was a surrogate for himself. Heim finally managed to break the habit, but he notes the many connections to Fosse’s own life. In addition to the biographical parallels, a number of the director’s associates, including Heim, are featured in All That Jazz. And how can we ignore the fact that the numerous bottles of dexedrine featured prominently in the film show the director’s home address on the label?
So what are we supposed to make of this? It’s a mistake to assume that everything we see in All That Jazz is a realistic representation of Fosse’s own life. At the same time, it’s a mistake to pretend the connections aren’t there, especially when the tone of the film is so clearly confessional. Fosse felt a need to put his life on the screen, in large part, it seems, to acknowledge his failings. But it’s also important to remember that, like many filmmakers, the director spent a lot of time dramatizing his life. Even if the episodes we see on the screen line up with episodes from the director’s career, they’re stylized and heightened in a way that’s nothing like real life. This is especially true of the last third of the film, which spins off into expressionistic fantasy. There’s no way you can take it literally.
Fosse loved the amped-up, overheated world of musicals. He worked as a dancer and choreographer at MGM back in the fifties, when the studio was churning out frothy, colorful, wildly energetic fantasies that audiences loved. Some of the best musicals of the studio era were made during this time, but the genre’s days were numbered. Though there were a few musicals that hit it big in the sixties, tastes were changing, and audiences were losing interest in fatuous fantasies that always had a happy ending. High profile flops like Dr. Dolittle and Paint Your Wagon almost killed the Hollywood musical.
But in the seventies, a new generation of filmmakers tried to reinvent the form.* Not buying into the easy optimism of the studio era extravaganzas, these directors approached the genre with a more cynical eye. Martin Scorsese tried to mix the glitter and glamour with a dark, disturbing romance in New York, New York. Francis Ford Coppola took a downbeat look at a doomed relationship in One from the Heart. But it was Fosse who somehow managed to reimagine the movie musical within a contemporary consciousness. He scored his first hit by adapting Cabaret, which had been a hit on Broadway. And seven years later he followed it with All That Jazz.
Fosse was never more audacious and never more assured than when he made All That Jazz. Just the idea of putting a character much like himself at the center of a big budget Hollywood musical was pretty outrageous. But pop culture was the stage Fosse chose to live his life on. Showbiz was his metaphor for the world. Of his five films, four of them are centered on entertainers. Fosse was fascinated by the relationship between performers and their audience. He understood the way a dancer or a singer or a comedian could reach out and grab a crowd, creating an electric connection that would hold them transfixed. He also knew how much performers often sacrificed to make that connection, and how damaging the lifestyle could be.
Not that Joe Gideon is a martyr to his art. It’s way more complex than that. Joe can’t stop doing what he does because he couldn’t live without the love and attention that the audience provides. He needs that fix. In spite of his apparent self-confidence, Joe is massively insecure, and constantly pushes himself to do better, because he never feels that anything he does is good enough. And while there’s no doubt he likes women, you have to wonder if he’s driven to chase them, at least in part, because he needs to bolster his fragile ego.
While Gideon has a number of women in his life, three in particular have a special hold on him. There’s his ex-wife, Audrey, who knows him better than anybody. She still loves him, and she stars in the show he’s directing, but she won’t let herself get drawn back into his web. She’s smart enough and strong enough to keep her distance. There’s Kate, his sometime girlfriend, who loves Joe desperately, and still tries to win his heart, even though she’s beginning to realize it’s impossible. And there’s Joe’s daughter, Michelle, who’s totally devoted to her father, and can’t understand why he never spends any time with her.
I should have said there are four women who are important to Gideon. The last is Death, who appears to the director as a female wraith draped in white. They sit together in a backstage netherworld filled with showbiz paraphernalia, Joe right at home at a dressing room table, gazing into the mirror and talking about the mistakes he’s made, the people he’s mistreated. He’s full of remorse, but he doesn’t seem to be able to change his ways. They chat, they laugh, they flirt. Joe is definitely attracted to this beautiful woman in white. For all the film’s high energy and brash theatricality, it’s actually deeply introspective. All That Jazz is a melancholy meditation on life and death.
But that’s not all it is. All That Jazz is also wildly entertaining, with energetic performances, breathtaking visuals, and stunning choreography. The first dance sequence, an open audition set to On Broadway, shows Gideon on stage with hundreds of performers, all trying to make an impression. It’s a virtuoso piece of filmmaking, breathtakingly shot and edited, and it pulls us right into the director’s world. Later we see Joe the choreographer take a paper thin song that he would’ve liked to cut completely and turn it into a show-stopper. The producers start sweating as they realize he’s transformed an innocuous ditty into an excuse for an erotic tour de force. Then there are the final hallucinatory dance numbers that close the film, Joe watching from his hospital bed as his wife, girlfriend and daughter perform brutally ironic riffs on Broadway shows. And extending the showbiz metaphor, as the patient lies buried under bandages and tubes, he sees that his visions are directed by himself, a cynical, detached taskmaster, descending from above on a crane to complain that his star blew the last take.
Bob Fosse died of heart failure at the age of sixty. Apparently he saw it coming. One of the most disturbing things about All That Jazz is the main character’s awareness that he’s pushing himself way too hard, and his apparent acknowledgement that he can’t live any other way. While the incidents we see on the screen may not directly align with the facts of Fosse’s life, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that he was using the movie to talk about himself. And more than anything else, that’s what makes this film so moving. Through the movie, Bob Fosse is trying to tell us who he was. Whatever faults he may have had, in All That Jazz he was trying to come clean.
They weren’t the first. Jacques Demy’s Umbrellas of Cherbourg was an early attempt to rethink the film musical. And on stage, Stephen Sondheim was pushing the genre in a whole new direction.
Since the beginning of commercial cinema, filmmakers have been adapting stories that were successful in other forms. There are a few different reasons for this. Sometimes it’s just because producers feel safer investing in a property that’s made money for somebody else. But it may also be that a writer or director sees the possibility of bringing something new to a story, a way to reimagine it in another medium. And this is really crucial. If all you want to do is create a faithful adaptation, what’s the point? Making a movie just to illustrate somebody else’s work is a waste of time. A novel is an experience in words, and you can’t recreate that on the screen. It has to become an experience in image and sound.
Of course some stories migrate through many different forms before they reach the screen. Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin was published at the end of the thirties. It was an autobiographical novel based on his experiences living in Germany in the early thirties, when the country was falling apart and the Nazis were rising to power. Isherwood kept a journal during those years, and later used the material to create the novel. In it, he compares himself to a camera, passively recording what he sees, storing it for later, when he’ll have the time to develop and print the images. This is key to the way Isherwood approached his work. His novels are generally episodic, undramatic. Rather than trying to force life into a fictional framework, Isherwood was more interested in allowing life to unfold on its own.
This is an aspect of the author’s work that John Van Druten intended to highlight when he adapted Goodbye to Berlin for the stage and called it I Am a Camera. Actually, he focussed mainly on one part of the book, the chapter entitled Sally Bowles. Sally was a young English woman that Isherwood roomed with in Berlin. In most ways they were complete opposites, but for a while they became close friends. Sally was desperately searching for a rich man to marry while she halfheartedly pursued a career on the stage. In writing the play, Van Druten eliminated much of the book’s detail and gave it more structure, but he was faithful to the tone of the original. The passive young man at the center of the story is always slightly detached from whatever’s happening in front of him, always a little aloof from the hurly burly of life.
In the sixties, Harold Prince obtained the rights to both the book and the play with the idea of creating a Broadway musical. Joe Masteroff wrote a show that was loosely based on Van Druten’s play, with songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb. Cabaret opened in 1966, and was a solid success. It had even less to do with Isherwood’s book than Van Druten’s play did, but audiences loved it. A road show version toured the US, and in 1968 the musical opened in London.
It was only natural that Hollywood producers would take notice. And by the time Cabaret appeared on the screen it would be transformed again, moving even further from the book that Isherwood had written as a young man. Interestingly, the film version deleted some of the elements that made the show so successful on stage, and reached deeper into the characters. Jay Presson Allen’s screenplay fleshes out the relationships and spends a good deal of time exploring the decadence and violence that defined Berlin in the early thirties.
Looking at the film today, it seems like Bob Fosse is the only person who could have made it. At the time, the producers had other candidates in mind. Fosse had only directed one movie, Sweet Charity, which tanked at the box office, and he didn’t have much credibility in Hollywood. To their credit, the producers took a chance, and Fosse showed everybody how far he could go as a director. The film he made of Cabaret was a sharp break with tradition, and it had to be. The lavish song and dance spectaculars made by MGM in the forties and fifties had set the standard for the genre, but times had changed. Throughout the sixties the studios had been throwing money at bloated productions of Broadway musicals that sank at the box office. Somehow they didn’t understand that the audiences flocking to see M*A*S*H and Easy Rider didn’t care about Lerner and Loewe.
It wasn’t just Fosse’s skill that made him the right choice for the movie. The director was the son of a vaudeville entertainer, and grew up performing in burlesque. He’d made his way up the ladder, working in Hollywood musicals as a dancer and then as a choreographer. All his life, Fosse was immersed in show business, and show business was the lens he used to look at the world. Much of what makes Cabaret so thrilling is its unabashed theatricality. The numbers that take place at the Kit Kat Club grow out of what’s happening in the characters’ lives. In the novel and the play, we’re told that Sally sings in a cabaret, but we barely get a sense of who she is as a performer. In the musical and the film, her performances at the club become crucial, and, especially in the film, they comment on what’s happening in the world outside. This wasn’t a new idea, but in the past this device was almost always used to serve a romantic comedy plot. The people who brought Cabaret to Broadway used the songs as a mocking commentary on the corruption and the violence of the world outside, and Fosse pushed that even further.
The film Cabaret could have ended up being a brutally cynical spectacle that alienated audiences, who might easily have been offended by the way it turned musical conventions inside out. Instead, the film became a huge success, in large part because of its showbiz energy and its spectacular cast. Certainly Liza Minnelli was a big part of the equation. The role seems to have been written for her, and she plays it with a startling combination of vivaciousness and vulnerability. Offstage she has a capricious charm that wins us over. Onstage she has an energy and power that are overwhelming. Minnelli herself is a showbiz creature, and to a degree the role seemed an expression of who she was. While she’s been impressive in other films, Sally Bowles is still the part she’s most closely associated with.
As Brian, Michael York is at the opposite end of the spectrum, a mild-mannered young Brit who wants to write but for the time being supports himself teaching English. York’s low-key intelligence is the perfect foil to Sally’s over the top theatricality. And in spite of the chasm between them, the two actors make the relationship convincing. These two people are miles apart, but they still care about each other.
Joel Grey had played the role of the MC on Broadway to great acclaim, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the film. Strangely, Fosse resisted casting Grey and reluctantly agreed when the producers insisted. Grey’s performance isn’t just energetic, it’s ferocious. He gleefully throws himself into every number, unabashedly working the audience over, going as far as it takes to get a laugh or a round of applause. His intensity is scary, especially in the later part of the film as we see the threat of violence becoming a part of daily life in Berlin. The MC goes on grinning maniacally as the Nazis grow more bold, the brutality taking place on the streets slowly bleeding into the shows on the stage.
Fosse wasn’t the first director to pry movie musicals away from the traditional stagebound approach, but he uses cinematic devices in provocative new ways. He resorts to parallel editing a number of times, and each time with striking effect. Cross cutting from a knockabout stage show to a brutal beating on the streets makes the violence doubly frightening by underscoring the fact that the show just goes on even as innocent people are being assaulted. One of the most daring sequences is built around the song Maybe this Time. We see Sally alone on the stage under a spotlight, the accompaniment playing quietly in the background, and she begins to sing. But after the first line, Fosse cuts to a brief scene between her and Brian. Then back to Sally on stage, another line of the song, and then back to another short vignette. You’d think that interrupting the song would ruin the scene, but in fact Fosse’s approach heightens the tension and makes Minnelli’s performance even more powerful. Though you wouldn’t call Cabaret fast-paced, each scene flows seamlessly into the next. Editor David Bretherton shows a sharp sense of rhythm, and handles the complex dance sequences beautifully.
The film is visually dazzling, and no doubt a good deal of credit goes to cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth. Throughout his career, one of Unsworth’s trademarks was his sophisticated handling of light. We see the cheap boarding houses and the dingy cabarets through a sensual, erotic haze. But even as we’re being seduced by this divine decadence, the film will shove us up against the ugly realities of pre-war Berlin. In fact, one of the most interesting things about the movie is the way it keeps pulling us in, and then, without warning, punches us in the face.
Cabaret is very different from the novel that Christopher Isherwood had written thirty years before. But it had to be. Fosse and his collaborators looked at the book and the play and the musical, and borrowed from all of them, but created something new. It may be a story about Berlin in the thirties, but it became a success because it resonated with audiences in the seventies. And even if you’ve seen it before, it’s well worth watching again, because it still reflects the world we live in today.