|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 19 August 2003|
“Chicago” won six Academy Awards – Best Picture, Supporting Actress (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Editing, Sound, Costume Design and Art Direction – and was nominated for another armload, including leading lady Renee Zellweger, supporting actor John C. Reilly, supporting actress Queen Latifah, screenwriter Bill Condon (adapted from the stage musical by director/choreographer/writer Bob Fosse, writer/lyricist Fred Ebb and composer John Kander, which was based on a play, which was in turn based on an actual ‘20s court case) and director Rob Marshall.
The Academy’s inclinations are understandable – “Chicago” is both entertaining and awesomely well-crafted, even if it may not make your head spin like, say, “Moulin Rouge.” Then again, this is the closest anybody has come to making something like a Bob Fosse movie musical since Fosse was alive to do it himself – Marshall, Condon and Co. remind us of the late director’s genius, even though (as the audio commentary makes clear) Marshall has been careful to emulate style while avoiding specific moves from the original “Chicago” stage choreography.
“Chicago” is a rollickingly cynical musical set in the title city’s Roaring ‘20s, when jazz babe Velma Kelly (Zeta-Jones), famously on trial for shooting her treacherous sister and unfaithful husband after catching them together, is shoved out of the headlines by new murderess Roxie Hart (Zellweger). Roxie is our heroine (sort of), a little housewife with big dreams of a showbiz career, who likely would have stayed unknown if not for her affair with a man who promised to get her onto the stage. When the louse dumps her and reveals he lied in order to get into Roxie’s bed, hitting her on his way out the door, Roxie loses it and pumps hot lead into the guy. Going on trial for her life, Roxie finds that the criminal justice system – at least as it’s handled by the likes of star lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) and prison matron “Mama” Morton (Latifah) – is exactly like showbiz, complete with celebrities, big production numbers and, if one isn’t careful, has-beens.
The central gimmick for the screen version, which director Marshall and screenplay adaptor Condon take justifiable pride in, is that it’s all seen through Roxie’s eyes. The movie is book-ended by a pair of actual nightclub production numbers, but every time somebody starts to go into a spiel, whether in a drab apartment or a depressing cellblock, Roxie’s imagination takes over and turns it into a musical spectacle. Flynn’s press conference is a marionette show, with the lawyer pulling the strings of his human puppets; murderesses confessing their crimes becomes a group tango number, with red scarves dramatically symbolizing blood in the killings while simultaneously serving as a nifty dance prop. If only Mama Morton, who gets a show-stopping entrance thanks to both the visual concept and Latifah’s apparently limitless power on the song “When You’re Good to Mama,” could see how Roxie envisions her, she’d probably be nicer to the girl a whole lot sooner.
Zellweger has an appealing voice, moves deftly and, perhaps most importantly, finds ways to inject sympathy, intelligence and humor into Roxie, who could easily come off as just an ambitious but none-too-bright babe who fundamentally doesn’t care about anyone else. Zeta-Jones as openly out-for-herself nightclub star (and killer) Velma is a showstopper, with a low belting voice and impressive dance technique – it’s no surprise to learn that she has a musical theatre background. Gere, who likewise has Broadway in his past, turns out to be quite the smooth song and dance man and John C. Reilly is very affecting as Roxie’s sadsack husband.
Picture and sound are extremely good on the DVD, which faithfully reproduces a visual effect from the theatrical version that may not be to everyone’s taste: when Roxie’s imagination takes over from real life, the lighting becomes very stage-theatrical, with images that are softened by smoke, dust motes floating under the ceiling gels and other live-looking atmospheric elements. It’s very striking, right for the movie and absolutely makes its point as to how Roxie sees the world, but viewers who want pinpoint video clarity from DVDs regardless of context should take this into account.
Soundwise, “Chicago” is handsome and strong, befitting a newly-recorded musical. Chapter 1 features a great mix of ambience and music, with a door squeal coming through the loud hot jazz of the intro to Zeta-Jones’ (and the film’s) opening number, “And All That Jazz,” which has high horns, under which the actual click of piano keys hitting home can be heard. The music here is forward, putting us in the rear of the house rather than on the stage. Marshall shrewdly intercuts the sexy dancing on stage with an actual sex act so that we imagine we’re seeing much more than we actually do.
We get punchy gunshots in Chapter 2. Chapter 4, which is in most respects repeat-viewing-worthy as it brings on Latifah’s awesome “When You’re Good to Mama,” has a bit of over-brassiness in the horns.
Chapter 8 has a very realistic sonic effect as a newsreel projector ticks through the sprockets all around us, and Chapter 13 features a screaming fit in the mains so lifelike that my first thought was not that it was part of the soundtrack, but rather that one of my neighbors had become distraught.
Chapter 14 does rather surround us with the orchestra as Gere launches into “Razzle Dazzle,” an instructive number about the creative use of misdirection, and Chapter 16 lets us actually feel the footwork through emphatic impact as Gere’s character literally does a courtroom tapdance.
“Chicago” is cynical but jubilant. It has a rather sour view of human beings, but it revels in the spotlight and in showing what it can do. With the expertise of Marshall, Condon and the remarkably talented cast, it dazzles – and gets a kick out of doing so.