IT BEGAN WITH A HIT…
Premiere once named this as one of the 20 most overrated films of all time. My take is different: Chicago is the greatest screen musical of the decade. Especially compared to Moulin Rouge! (2001), Baz Luhrmann’s hugely popular but exhausting jukebox musical.
Well, some critics considered Luhrmann’s film a breath of fresh air. But Chicago showed that if the right people are hired, a familiar musical story and often-heard tunes can come across as fresh as ever. This movie makes the stunts of Moulin Rouge! look cheap.
Chicago, early 1920s. Young Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger) is hoping that a fling, Fred Casely (Dominic West), can get her a job at a vaudeville show. When she finds out that he’s been lying to her just to get her in the sack, she’s so distraught that she reaches for a gun and shoots him. When Roxie’s naive husband (John C. Reilly) tries to take the blame for the murder but fails, she’s arrested and sent to Cook County Jail. There she meets Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a vaudeville star that Roxie’s admired for a long time. Velma’s been locked up after killing her sister and husband who had been carrying on an affair behind her back, but has managed to create a decent enough life for herself in prison, collaborating with the corrupt supervisor “Mama” Morton (Queen Latifah) and preparing her trial together with Chicago’s hottest lawyer, Billy Flynn (Richard Gere). Roxie realizes that if she’s to stand a chance, she also needs to hire Flynn and learn how to play the role of a victim…
Styles of theater and film fuse
The original Broadway production first saw life in 1975, but the story was actually based on a 1926 play, in turn inspired by real-life cases. Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb wrote the original book for the musical; the first run wasn’t very popular, but the 1996 revival seemed to catch audiences in a better mood. Because there’s never been anything wrong with the material. The film is a tribute to Fosse’s style in choreography, and the juxtaposition between the straight storyline (filmed realistically in earthy colors) and the splashy song numbers, played out in an alternate fantasy universe, is highly effective.
Every act is pure eye candy, frantically edited and enthusiastically performed by a very game cast. The styles of theater and film fuse in respectful and playful ways. It helps having a song catalog this impressive; John Kander and Fred Ebbs’s tunes are brought to life with tremendous energy, and Danny Elfman’s score fits in perfectly. Standouts include the mesmerizing “We Both Reached for the Gun” and the highly entertaining storytelling of “Cell Block Tango”. Part of the appeal is the film’s sense of humor, but also its darkness. This is a cynical tale of how easy it is to manipulate the public and the media, and the absurdity of the musical numbers underscore that fact. But it’s also a sexy, engaging film; there’s always something worth admiring in every shot.
Among the cast, I particularly enjoyed Zellweger who plays her daft character very well, and Gere who got a chance to show a new side of himself.
Chicago is the first musical to win the Best Picture Oscar since Oliver! (1968). It wasn’t followed by a slew of other successful screen musicals even though it was a huge hit, which only shows how tough the genre is. As jukebox musicals keep popping up, especially now, a decade after Moulin Rouge!, I’m still waiting for real originality in this field.
Chicago 2002-U.S. 113 min. Color. Produced by Martin Richards. Directed by Rob Marshall. Screenplay: Bill Condon. Book: Bob Fosse, Fred Ebb. Cinematography: Dion Beebe. Music: Danny Elfman. Songs: “And All That Jazz”, “When You’re Good to Mama”, “Cell Block Tango”, “We Both Reached for the Gun”, “Mr. Cellophane”, “I Move On” (John Kander, Fred Ebb). Editing: Martin Walsh. Costume Design: Colleen Atwood. Cast: Renée Zellweger (Roxie Hart), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Velma Kelly), Richard Gere (Billy Flynn), Queen Latifah, John C. Reilly, Christine Baranski… Lucy Liu, Taye Diggs, Dominic West.
Trivia: The original story was filmed as Chicago (1927) and Roxie Hart (1942). John Travolta, Kevin Spacey and Hugh Jackman were allegedly considered for the role of Billy Flynn.
Oscars: Best Picture, Supporting Actress (Zeta-Jones), Film Editing, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Costume Design, Sound. Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Comedy/Musical), Actress (Zellweger), Actor (Gere). BAFTA: Best Supporting Actress (Zeta-Jones), Sound.
Last word: “Catherine, Renée, and Richard all have unbelievable instincts about everything. So when they say something feels wrong, or ‘I feel funny saying this’, you listen. And I did. Every time. This was collaboration on so many levels because they brought the characters to life in a way that I could only have imagined. To find actors who could do this with the gritty reality of ‘Chicago’ and at the same time play the world of Vaudeville and still make you care is unbelievable. These are not likeable characters, in many ways, but you love these characters because of the actors. That’s why I think this film works, because of these flexible actors who can do anything you ask them to do.” (Marshall, BBC)