Movies That Saved My Life: “All That Jazz” (1979)

MOVIES THAT CHANGED MY LIFE:   “All That Jazz” (1979)

Spoiler Warning!  We’re taking this film apart!



HERO CONFRONTED WITH CHALLENGE: Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider) is challenged to create the greatest choreographic achievement of his life.

REJECTS THE CHALLENGE:  He does not see that this is a false challenge: the real challenge is to raise his daughter, love his sweetheart, and protect his health from a self-destructive lifestyle (drugs, smoking, meaningless sex)

ACCEPTS THE CHALLENGE:  He does not accept the correct challenge!   He chooses falsely, and the rest of the film is a spiral into death while chasing a dream (the death-dream is “played” by a transcendent Jessica Lange)

ROAD OF TRIALS: He must convince the investors to trust his approach.  Cajole the most extreme and amazing performances from his dancers.  Work obsessively balancing the musical with a movie he is editing (which provides perfect counter-point and subtext to his self-destructive actions), pushing himself insanely hard.

ALLIES AND POWERS.  His ex-wife, daughter and girlfriend are all allies. The daughter represents his future and pure love.  His ex-wife loves and admires him, and he can see that she is deluded about her ability to play a much younger woman, but cannot see how this applies to himself–he is pushing himself like a much younger man.  His girlfriend genuinely loves him and would like a life with him, but cannot break through his ego shell.  Powers?  Oh, man, is this ever a brilliant human being!  He can dance, direct, edit, write, and is magnetic to the people around him.  A real leader. He has everything…except his own heart and soul.

CONFRONT EVIL-DEFEAT:   His health collapses just as he has created his ultimate masterpiece, the “Air Rotica” sequence.

DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL: His play will be taken away from him, or even closed so that investors can reap the insurance (shades of “The Producers”!)  And oh, by the way, one minor problem: he is going to die if he doesn’t change drastically.

LEAP OF FAITH: He totally blows it.  He has no faith that he, as a human being, has value separate from his ability to perform.  He must be his ego-shell, his image…or he is nothing.

CONFRONT EVIL-VICTORIOUS:  Again, he is off the rails.   Spirals into death, finally finding union with the creative death-muse he has pursued his entire life.

STUDENT BECOMES THE TEACHER:  Well, he certain taught at least ONE viewer…


The movie “All That Jazz” saved my life.   The fictionalized story of Bob Fosse, choreographer extraordinaire, was a dazzling descent into self-destructive excess: sex, drugs, and musical theater as addictions.  And the “Gideon” character was brilliant.

I wanted brilliance.  Was obsessed with the notion that unless I could find a way to be extraordinary, the world would chew me up and spit me out.   And I walked out of that theater confused, afraid, and determined.

What a conundrum, dilemma, Gordian Knot, whatever.  The belief that I had to be excellent to survive was deep, and I could not easily invalidate it.

And the easiest way to become excellent is to focus obsessively on one subject until you have absorbed the basics at the level of unconscious competence (“mastery” being the ability to express skills in flow, under pressure).

But…that focus throws you out of balance. And when you are out of balance, you neglect important aspects of your life…which can destroy the very thing you are trying to protect.


Round and round it went.  Weeks.  The scenes from that movie hammered me.   He was excellent.    He had everything.


Oh, crap.

And then, I got one of the ten most important insights of my life: if excellence is safety, and obsession is the fastest way to excellence, and obsession creates imbalance, and imbalance is dangerous…then the only thing it was relatively safe to become obsessive about IS BALANCE ITSELF.

I looked at that in multiple directions.  Obsession about balance could of course create problems itself–paralysis, for instance, because you can never be perfectly balanced.  But it seemed to me that I could get CLOSER to 100% with this concept, without self-destruction.

So the question was: how to define balance?  For decades I used the simple, classic answer: Body, Mind, Spirit.  Defining the worldly measure of those things to be: health and fitness, career, and relationship.  Those who have known me for a while know that I made a little error there that cost me dearly, and had to modify that to add another category: finances.  SAVING and INVESTING the money I made.   The animal equivalent: saving your nuts for winter.

That movie, ultimately, saved me.  I can easily see how I could have burned myself out trying to “succeed” if I hadn’t had love and health to fall back on, because there is NO way to succeed without failing at times.  None. And if you don’t have other things going on in your life, cannot let the love of your family (or your God, or your own deep self) touch and heal you, you need the money, the roar of the crowd, and will chase after it and destroy yourself in the process.

Yeah.  “All That Jazz” was simply wonderful.




One comment

  1. New to your website (though not to your writing) and THRILLED to see an appreciation for All That Jazz, to my mind one of the best and underappreciated examinations of the internal forces at work in a creative process self destructive and otherwise. Thanks.


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