As with many things on the grand stage of pop culture, trends come and trends go. The best example with this of late is the rise of the superhero movie in the last decade or so. Now, films about comic book characters have been around for decades. But big budgets and serialized storytelling helped the genre take itself seriously. Now, superhero films are beginning to recognize their powerful collective voice when reaching out to audiences. Their place in our culture is set.
Another genre that seems to come and go is the musical. I’ve written that many films pay homage to Broadway, which is the artistic bedrock upon which film is built. To this day, many workers in the movie business got their start in the musicals. For a time, particularly in the 1960s, musicals were at their zenith in popularity. By the time the 1970s showed up, Hollywood was a much different animal. The success of very dark films like The French Connection, The Godfather, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest foretold the death of the jovial musical as studios responded with changes in audience demands.
But the musical did not die and has had a rebirth in the new century. With this rebirth came 2002’s Chicago, a film that helped cement the resurgence of the genre. Set in 1920s Chicago, the film, which was directed by Rob Marshall and stars Renée Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones, expands on the classic idea of the musical with not just catchy lyrics and tunes, but also solid acting, a compelling story, and terrific characters. Chicago goes a step further still by combining these ideas with gritty storytelling, pulling no punches in its examination of show business, corruption, greed, lust, and murder.
Now for the rest of the film.
Chicago begins in the 1920s in the Windy City. Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is nearly late to a performance she normally puts on with her sister, Veronica. When Velma appears on-stage alone, she quickly steals the show with the overture to Chicago, “All That Jazz.”
In the audience is young Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger), who watches the show intently, almost like Eve from All About Eve. In the audience with Roxie is Fred Casely (Dominic West), whom we find out later is Roxie’s lover. The two get out of the show and go back to Roxie’s apartment. The two argue and the argument quickly gets heated. In her rage, Roxie picks up her husband’s pistol and shoots Casely several times in the chest, killing him on the spot.
After failing to convince her husband to take the fall for her, she’s sent to jail. While there, she quickly finds her way around the prison. Roxie also comes into contact with her idol Velma, who’s also there on a murder charge. Roxie soon hires hotshot Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) to be her lawyer.
The interesting thing about a musical is that the plot is often somewhat restricted due to the use of music within the film, however, much of the plot relies on the music itself. Chicago is certainly no different compared to other musicals. But that doesn’t mean that the musicals are inherently good or bad.
Chicago‘s plot is simple: two fallen angels and a hot shot lawyer’s bid to bring them back to relevance through the media and other channels. It’s simple. But also effective. Stories come in all shapes and sizes.
Chicago, though, doesn’t waste any time getting to the point. The opening piece shows Velma discarding a recently used pistol and the first few minutes feature Roxie’s fall when she murders Casely.
But perhaps the most interesting part of the plot is the lack of the wholesome Midwestern values that the actual city of Chicago is famous for. The story throws you right in and doesn’t protect you from the more troublesome parts of the film. Therefore, lust, murder, jealousy, sex, and other vices are right there in front of us. It doesn’t moralize, but rather presents these ideas in a straightforward manner. 1.
Obviously, since the invention of movies with sound, a huge part of the film has been the speaking and the verbal interactions of the characters. With a musical, you have these exchanges, but the difficulty of writing good exchanges is the use of lyrics within the songs. What are songs but just poems?
I am not a poet, no matter how hard I try. But some brilliant people can write dialogue and poetry. Chicago is brilliant both in its dialogue and its lyrics.
From a dialogue standpoint, the speaking is not terse like some other films, like No Country For Old Men, but rather very succinct. There is no fat when it comes to this script. Everything is said in the fewest and best words possible. I loved that about this movie. You can introduce and reinforce a lot of ideas within the film without even wasting that much time. 1.
Obviously, a musical’s main distinguishing component is its use of sound and song. The score for Chicago was composed by Danny Elfman and John Kander. The film also won an Oscar for Best Sound, going to Michael Minkler, Dominick Tavella, and David Lee.
In his review of this film, Roger Ebert stated that it is “big brassy fun” and that statement is 100 percent true. A film taking place in the Jazz Age does require jazz to make itself great, after all. The music is brassy, seductive, and quite catchy, too. This is probably the most evident when it comes to one of the musical’s most famous songs, the “Cell Block Tango”, in which six murderesses tell the stories of their murders (or non-murders). The scene is terrifically acted, costumed, and choreographed by everyone involved. I’ll warn you though, this film features a lot of scantily-clad women and lingerie, so watch this video at your own risk.
In an age when musicals are not nearly as prevalent as other forms of television, Chicago is a refreshing breeze on a hot day, bringing the film to life in a way that we don’t see much of anymore. Of the musicals that I’ve reviewed thus far, Chicago is certainly the best one. It’s certainly much better than The Broadway Melody, and even My Fair Lady from 1964. 1.
Chicago won the Oscar for Best Art Direction, and it’s not hard to see why. Like I said above, the film’s costume department whipped up a lot of lingerie for the actresses, to be sure, but also A TON of period outfits and flashy costumes, too. Most of the music takes place in Roxie’s head throughout the film, and she imagines it all as a Vaudeville show.
Therefore, the costumes are terrific, over the top, and full of shiny glitter. This is true for both the men and the women she imagines singing their parts.
As for the physical world of the movie, it’s terrific as well. Jumping back and forth from the depths of Roxie’s imagination to the “real world,” Chicago makes use of stages, jails, office, apartments, and even street corners to help sell the space. 1.
Earning a nomination for Best Cinematography was Chicago’s Director of Photography Dion Beebe.
One of the first things I noticed with the film, in general, is that nearly every shot in the entire movie has movement, be it motivated or otherwise. Just adding a tiny bit of movement to the film is a nifty strategy for making each shot feel brand new to us, even though many of them are repeated. You can only shoot a Vaudeville show on the stage in so many ways.
But more than that, the cinematography is both artistic and cutting edge, with Beebe utilizing a lot of unique angles. Shots over heads and below feet (like on a see-through metal walkway) are sprinkled throughout the film and add a certain pizzazz to the “feel” of the movie.
One more thing I’d like to mention about the cinematography is the editing. Martin Walsh walked out of the ceremony that night with an Oscar win for Best Editing. Even though we do cut back and forth between imagination and real life, it still takes someone able to put all that together in an understandable way. The editing here is amazingly good. 1.
Catherine Zeta-Jones stars in this film as the Vaudeville star Velma. She’s used to the spotlight and really knows how to work an audience while on stage. She is so good at her act that she drips of sexuality to all those who see her act, sing, and dance.
We’re introduced to Velma right away during her introductory number “All That Jazz.” From there, we next meet Velma in prison after she’s killed her husband and her sister.
Velma is two sides of the same coin: we have empathy for her when her shining star comes crashing down after the murderous rampage she went on after she caught her husband sleeping with her sister. But, we also get to see Velma become the villain in Chicago. While Roxie is working with, and becoming the darling client to Billy, Velma’s jealousy overtakes her and she does everything to scuttle Roxie’s chance at avoiding the hangman’s noose.
She will stop at nothing to get back the power, fame, and wealth that she lost when she went into prison, which includes playing by a very unfair set of rules. Zeta-Jones also won Best Supporting Actress for this role.
On the other side is young Roxie, played by Renée Zellweger. Roxie is the wannabe, the fanatic who’s dream it is to perform on the Vaudeville stage. Roxie’s life is turned upside down when she murders her lover Fred Casely. She initially tries to get her husband Amos (John C. Reilly) to take the fall for her, but he soon gives her up.
In the ensuing months, Roxie builds up a lot of sympathy from us as she tries to adapt to her life as a murderer, but also as she tries to save her own neck from the gallows. But Roxie’s sympathy is slowly chipped away as the film wears on. She is manipulative, playing the media like a fiddle when she gets in front of them, trying to bend public opinion over to her side. She flashes some leg at the jury while on the stand and whips up crocodile tears when she needs them.
By the time her trial date nears, Roxie has gone from a sweet blonde woman to a fierce monster with a knack for keeping the attention focused on her.
For her part, Zellweger was nominated for Best Actress for this role. 1.
Getting a Best Director nomination for Chicago was Robb Marshall, the man who directed 2018’s Mary Poppin Returns. He paired with Miramax and Harvey Weinstein to make this feature.
First of all, this film is like Shakespeare in Love in that it beat out what I think is a superior film in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. However, unlike Shakespeare in Love, Chicago is actually a good movie. Therefore, I don’t knock this one the same way I did Shakespeare in Love.
Having a background in media and journalism made me look at this film in that light. The 1920s was an era before the journalism standards we have today. At that time, the media was focused almost purely on selling more papers than the other gigs in town. Therefore, many pieces were greatly sensationalized in the papers.
Marshall presents the media in this film as hungry dogs, willing to be led anywhere and everywhere for the next big story. Roxie, Billy, and even Velma have to work hard to keep their attention before they’re off the front page forever.
But this also speaks to a larger theme within the movie, a story that has been told multiple times over the years, and that’s the fickle nature of stardom and celebrity. You’re only as famous as how recognizable you are to the average person. Chicago is a perfect demonstration of this. Even today, celebrities have agents to help them land movie roles and endorsement deals which put them on our television screens, movie screens, phone screens. Being a celebrity is intoxicating, as Roxie finds out, but it’s also some serious work to try to maintain that fame if you’re unlucky enough to be drowned by it. 1.
I’m giving a point to sound. I can’t stop listening to the soundtrack.
Final Score: 8/10
Chicago won the 75th winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture on March 23, 2003, at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles. It beat out Gangs of New York, The Hours, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and The Pianist for Best Picture. The award was presented by Kirk and Michael Douglas and accepted by producer Martin Richards. In total, Chicago won six Oscars out of 13 nominations.
Other winners that night included Roman Polanski winning Best Director, Adrien Brody winning Best Actor, Nicole Kidman winning Best Actress, and Chris Cooper winning Best Supporting Actor. The ceremony was hosted by Steve Martin.
What a crazy spring. I’m going to try to get back on track next week with 1944’s Going My Way. After that, it’s Spotlight, 12 Years a Slave, American Beauty, All Quiet on the Western Front, The English Patient, and An American in Paris.