The musical Chicago finally made it to the big screen after a torturous 27-year development period. The Prohibition-era story revolves around Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger), an aspiring singer-dancer who dreams of seeing her name up in lights. She becomes a different kind of celebrity, however, when she cheats on her loyal husband (John C. Reilly), shoots her caddish lover (Dominic West), and lands on Murderer’s Row in the Windy City’s Cook County Jail. She immediately butts heads with homicidal showgirl Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who becomes her rival for media headlines and the public’s fickle attentions. When it finally dawns on her that she could wind up swinging from the end of a rope for her crime, Roxie attempts to steal Velma’s slick lawyer, Billy Flynn (Richard Gere).
Legendary director-choreographer Bob Fosse staged the original 1975 Broadway musical production as an elaborate vaudeville show, with the brassy John Kander and Fred Ebb songs performed in the style of famous burlesque performers. To make this conceptual approach cinematic, director Rob Marshall and screenwriter Bill Condon have juxtaposed a realistic depiction of Roxie’s jailhouse plight with razzle-dazzle production numbers that take place within her imagination. This brilliant ploy acknowledges the show’s vaudeville roots, while solving the musical’s inherent structural difficulties and credibility problems.
Marshall uses just enough MTV-style quick-cut editing to move between the story’s real-time and fantasy sequences, but not enough to intrude upon the production numbers. Lesbian prison matron Mama Morton (Queen Latifah) performs When You’re Good to Mama in the style of Bessie Smith, while Roxie’s cuckold husband Amos does his best Bert Williams sad-sack routine in Mr. Cellophane. In the show-stopping The Press Conference Rag, Billy Flynn manipulates Roxie like a ventriloquist dummy and sob sister columnist Little Mary Sunshine (Christine Baranski) and other reporters like marionettes. The songs by Kander and Ebb may just represent the best Broadway musical score of the past quarter century.
Zellweger knocks across her songs with real style and at one point even evokes the spirit of Marilyn Monroe, dancing in a silver sequined flapper dress on a blackened stage with swirling mirrors. Strutting her stuff with maximum impact, Zeta-Jones is the kind of powerhouse singer and dancer that hasn’t been seen onscreen in nearly forty years. Gere’s Rudy Vallee-like singing is pleasant, but his best moments are comedic ones highlighting his smarmy lawyer act. This cinematic triumph inspired hope for a real renaissance of the movie musical genre, which has only seen a few new entries since this film’s release in 2002. Who says they don’t make ‘em like they used to? But will they?
Nominated for 13 Academy Award nominations, the film won 6 Oscars for Best Picture, Supporting Actress (Zeta-Jones), Film Editing, Sound, Art Direction/Set Decoration, and Costumes. The other nominations were for Actress (Zellweger), Supporting Actress (Latifah), Supporting Actor (Reilly), Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, and Song (“I Go On”). Of the five principals, only Richard Gere failed to receive an Oscar nod. On the night of the awards telecast, The Pianist picked up the all-important Director and Adapted Screenplay prizes and Chicago producer Harvey Weinstein must have been sweating bullets thinking he was going to lose Best Picture. The Academy, however, opted to honor the long-forgotten movie musical genre over the period gangster flick, the literary adaptation, the second part of a fantasy epic, and the Holocaust drama.
(OTHER NOMINEES: Gangs of New York / The Hours / The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers / The Pianist)
- by Jonathan Lewis