Like moths to the flame, those individuals who enjoy musicals will very likely be pleased by Rob Marshall’s 2002 film adaptation of Bob Fosse’s 1975 hit Broadway show, Chicago. Set in the Roaring Twenties, this sultry and swanky motion picture tells the tale of “two murdering floozies” in the crime-ridden, titular Windy City during an era of jazz, sex, and scandal. What the film lacks in substance it certainly makes up for in show, as the main narrative interweaves seamlessly with wonderfully-choreographed musical numbers that are separate from the action itself. A little more on that later; but first, let’s get into the nitty-gritty about what Chicago is all about.
Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) is a former chorus girl hoping to strike it big and become a star. She’s also deeply unhappy in her marriage to one dim-witted Amos (John C. Reilly) and finds comfort in screwing around with their furniture salesman, Fred Casely (Dominic West). The poor sod makes the mistake of whispering sweet nothings to her in bed, and then crushing her dreams after the dirty deed is done. The consequence for his lies? Three bullets to the chest. And the consequence for Roxie’s indiscretion and hastiness? A one-way ticket to death row, where other “murderesses” like Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) await their imminent demise…and also scheme with warden Matron “Mama” Morton (Queen Latifah) and sleazy lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) to get them all off the hook for their crimes.
If it’s beginning to sound to you as though all the characters in this film are without a moral compass, then you’re pretty spot on. The biggest gripe I have with this film is that all of the characters are amoral and therefore have no redeeming qualities. Reviewer Neil Minnow of Common Sense Media agrees, saying Chicago feels, “so empty at the core” because “the story does not have a single likeable character, honest statement, unselfish motive, or generous gesture.” This can easily turn off some viewers; I myself have seen this movie once before. And I could not make it all the way through another sitting of it to write this review. Does that make it a bad film? Absolutely not. It’s incredibly well-done, especially the casting, musical score, and cinematography.
Another reviewer, David Rooney of Variety.com, points out director Rob Marshall’s background in musical theater and how it “well serves the musical segs [sic], which shift confidently between fantasy and reality.” The intercutting of these musical numbers is something that I noticed from the very beginning as a key device in telling the story. Yet I, as well as Rooney, found that this form of editing somewhat disrupts the narrative, and therefore the depth of the characters themselves. We never fully know what’s going on in the actual city of Chicago; are the night-club-esque performances really happening somewhere in the city, or are they just dreamlike façades, put on just for show, to compliment the darker tone of the story? It remains unclear, especially since the famous opening number, “All That Jazz” is actually a performance that happened within the plot. The other flashy song and dance numbers do not seem to be, and that confused me a bit. But damn, if the choreography isn’t simply spectacular!
Bob Fosse is responsible for the amazing musical numbers’ refined, sexy, and exceptional choreography. Dancers fly like wraiths about the darkened, dreamy stage, alight with fiery passion, moving as sinuously and sensuously as wisps of smoke. These musical numbers are what give Chicago its life, I think. Without the talent of the many dozens of chorus members, this film would certainly have fallen flat. That is not to say that the main characters themselves lack talent; Zellweger, Zeta-Jones, Gere, Reilly, and Latifah really give their own performances on the dream-stage their all. Each of them are convincing representations of different vices within the seedy jazz-scene of mid-twenties Chicago, and each adds their own flavor to the mix.
Chicago is one of those films that musical theater-goers would love more than any other viewer. Its bold choice to interweave the staged musical numbers with scenes from the ongoing plot was rather captivating. The casting of very powerful singers and dancers as the leads was an excellent choice, too, and is likely why the film received a score of 86% on Rotten Tomatoes and 7.2/10 on IMDb. It also won six Academy Awards in 2003 against such contenders as The Hours, Gangs of New York, The Pianist, and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. The quick-yet-fluid camera shots in the film—during musical numbers and plot scenes alike—compliments the fast pace of the narrative. The personalities presented by the characters offer both a portrait and a commentary on the muddy nature of a bygone era teeming with sex and sin—a place where money speaks louder than even the belting alto of Velma Kelly and the airy soprano Roxie Hart in duet upon a darkened stage. To truly enjoy Chicago, viewers must relinquish any hope they have for the characters to embody any sort of goodness and simply enjoy the film for what it is: a striking adaptation of a hit Broadway show with panache, flash, and “all…that…jazz.”