Choreographing and picking dancers for his current show whilst editing his feature film about a stand-up comedian is getting to Joe Gideon. Without the chemical substances, he would not have the energy to keep up with his girlfriend, his ex-wife, and his special dancing daughter. They attempt to bring him back from the brink, but it’s too late for his exhausted body and stress-ravaged heart. He chain-smokes, uses drugs, sleeps with his dancers and overworks himself into open-heart surgery. Scenes from his past life start to encroach on the present and he becomes increasingly aware of his mortality.
In his review in The New York Times, Vincent Canby called the film “an uproarious display of brilliance, nerve, dance, maudlin confessions, inside jokes and, especially, ego” and “an essentially funny movie that seeks to operate on too many levels at the same time… some of it makes you wince, but a lot of it is great fun… A key to the success of the production is the performance of Roy Scheider as Joe Gideon… With an actor of less weight and intensity, All That Jazz might have evaporated as we watched it. Mr. Scheider’s is a presence to reckon with.”
Variety described it as “a self-important, egomaniacal, wonderfully choreographed, often compelling film” and added, “Roy Scheider gives a superb performance as Gideon, creating a character filled with nervous energy… The film’s major flaw lies in its lack of real explanation of what, beyond ego, really motivates [him].”
TV Guide said, “The dancing is frenzied, the dialogue piercing, the photography superb, and the acting first-rate, with non-showman Scheider an illustrious example of casting against type . . . All That Jazz is great-looking but not easy to watch. Fosse’s indulgent vision at times approaches sour self-loathing.”
Film critic Leonard Maltin gave the film two-and-a-half stars (out of four) in his 2009 movie guide; he said that the film was “self-indulgent and largely negative,” and that “great show biz moments and wonderful dancing are eventually buried in pretensions”; he also called the ending “an interminable finale which leaves a bad taste for the whole film.”
Upon release in 1979, master director Stanley Kubrick (who is referenced in the movie) reportedly believed it to be the “best film I think I have ever seen”. In 2001, All That Jazz was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. The Academy Film Archive preserved All That Jazz in 2001. In 2006, the film ranked #14 on the American Film Institute’s Greatest Movie Musicals list.
The film would be the last musical nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture until Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1991) and the last live-action musical nominated until Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (2001).