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Chicago By Matt Singer
Chicago is all about that first song, “All That Jazz” - the noise, the brawls, all that jazz. Though the events take place in 1920s, its message and themes are utterly modern, as is its approach to movie musical making; in an ingenious choice, the songs and dances mostly exist in the mind of the protagonist, the murderous Roxie Hart (Renee Zellwegger). If the movie musical is dead, Chicago is the healthiest looking rotting corpse this side of Michael Jackson.
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Roxie kills a poor schmoe who makes the mistake of promising her a career as a singer and only giving her a month of rolling around in the sack. When Roxie finally gets wise, she plugs him, then tries to get her equally schmoey husband Amos (The always good John C. Reilly) to take the fall for her. She winds up in the slammer where she meets Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a big star on the stage and an even bigger one in her own mind. Early in Roxie’s incarceration, the film has its greatest moment, during the spectacular number “Cell Block Tango” in which Velma and the rest of the Murderer’s Row All-Stars recreate their crimes in black, white, and red.
Eventually cute little Roxie lands the ear of hotshot lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), who only cares about love, and the $5,000 each of his clients provides him. Gere typically plays very serious and earnest roles; Flynn is a huckster in a nice suit and wicked grin, and when Gere flashes his as he sings his first big production number there doesn’t seem to be too much acting behind it. Gere’s casting certainly doesn’t sound appealing (at least, not to me), but his charm and enthusiasm carries him past the point where his talents as a singer and dancer would otherwise take him. His female co-stars seem better equipped for their numbers; Zeta-Jones in particular looks more than comfortable dancing the charleston or acting like an egotistical bitch.
It’s tough to say whether younger audiences will embrace this film like they did Moulin Rouge; unlike Baz Lurhman’s psychotic headtrip, Chicago is a lot more lucid and a bit more controlled. And older musical fans might be put off by the often frenetic crosscutting between reality and Roxie’s glitzy dreams. Then again, the lighting, cinematography, and choreography (also by director Rob Marshall) are topnotch, and the editing, by Martin Walsh, is among the very best of 2002. Typically dance numbers in musicals were filmed in very long takes to show off the performers’ talents, but current fashion requires a much choppier look and here the cutting manages to bring out the big moments and keep things moving at an tight-jawed pace.
If Chicago was not ahead of its time when it debuted on Broadway in 1975 (and some would say it was), it’s because its story of unbridled ambition and desire for fame is a timeless one applicable to any time in memory. If Roxie Hart was around in the 1970s she could have been on The Gong Show and today she would have fit in quite nicely on Joe Millionaire. Velma resembles any number of sorta-celebrities, Robert Blake being the latest, who winds up getting accused of murdering his or her loved ones - you half expect Velma to promise to search for the “real” killer just as soon as she is rightfully acquitted.
Chicago is a fun, well-made movie, and you can certainly count on its presence at the Oscars (It has already received eight Golden Globe nominations). I saw the film at the Ziegfeld theater, an huge old movie house appropriate for such a film. The large audience at this noisy hall laughed out loud and even applauded after the musical numbers. If this musical thing takes off, Marshall has established himself as a key player in its next evolution. And when you see his name on some more movies just remember; all he cares about is love.