Review by Paul Stathakis | 2002

Joins the list of exceptional musicals

“5, 6, 7, 8” is the speedy countdown that kicks off director Rob Marshall’s musical “Chicago”. Once it starts and hooks you in, there’s no looking back. Instead, we’re left to admire the flashy lights, dazzling costumes, precise choreography, outstanding cast and brilliant direction. But what really makes this glitzy spectacle shake is its smooth editing and rousing performances.

Based on the Broadway show, “Chicago” introduces its main characters by welcoming them to a stage – where they perform their own musical number. The first to appear in the spotlight is Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Kelly is a voluptuous nightclub dancer with striking eyes and a figure to die for. Speaking of dying, Velma just happens to be arrested for murder once she finishes her opening number.

Also in the club that night – along with half of Chicago – is Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger). Hart is a cute blonde who desperately wants to be to become a successful vaudeville star herself. She is a great admirer of Velma’s – she studies every stomp, kick and spin as if it were her own.

Roxie has an affair with a man who claims to have connections in show business. But when he confesses that he doesn’t believe that Roxie has potential and that he lied to her just to get her into bed – she furiously whips out a pistol and kills him with two rounds. Her husband Amos (John C. Reilly) returns home and she immediately tries to get him to admit guilt. Instead, he rats her out and she goes to jail.

The matron of the prison is Mama Morton (Queen Latifah). Mama is like the ideal mother. But, she’ll take care of you – if you pay her the right amount. Through Mama, we learn about Billy Flynn (Richard Gere). Flynn is Illinois’ finest lawyer, who has apparently never lost a case. He’s handsome, cynical, and above all, extremely manipulative and smart. He’s also very expensive, charging clients 5000$ for his retainer. Keep in mind, this is the 1920s. Flynn says, “If Jesus Christ had lived in Chicago, and he’d had 5000$, and had come to me – things would have turned out differently.” Amos is willing to give all he can raise – only a little over two thousand for starters – to defend his wife. Flynn decides to take the case, claiming Amos’ devotion (not to mention the two grand in cash) moved him. While in prison, Roxie finally spots Velma and tries to talk to her, but gets rebuffed. But when Roxie’s face hits the front page of the papers, thanks to Flynn’s political influences, jealousy drives Velma to desperate measures. Both females want to achieve the same goal. In other words, both want to headline Chicago. But like the ads for the film state, “In a city where everyone loves a legend, there’s only room for one.”

I bow to director Baz Luhrman for having the courage and determination to re-establish the musical genre back in 2001, when he directed “Moulin Rouge”. But “Chicago” is quite different. It’s an assorted fruit basket – meaning everything about it is fresh and offers a little something appetizing for just about anyone. It’s sad and funny, provocative and loud. But above all – it’s not overhyped and perfectly jazzed up! In fact, “Chicago” is tuned to beats that never get dreary – not for one second.

The editing is remarkable – I must emphasize it. “Chicago” contains some of the best editing I’ve seen since Christopher Nolan’s “Memento”. The film demands a fast pace, and that’s exactly what the audience gets. Plus, the music coincides with the story in such a natural way that it almost feels like we’re watching the stage version of the show.

And the cast is enchanting – literally. Zellweger has been receiving acclaim for her pulsating role, including a well-deserved Oscar nod for Best Actress. With her short blonde hair and sparkling diamonds, she can easily pass for a modern Marilyn Monroe – especially toward the end. Of course the other glamour of the film is none other than Catherine Zeta-Jones, who took on the role while being pregnant.

You can’t help but fall in love with both actresses, especially when you hear their acute voices for the very first time. Yes, they can actually sing. However, I wasn’t intimidated by Richard Gere and Queen Latifah’s vocal moments. They too can sing, but their movements seemed rehearsed and forced. Mind you, one of the film’s most beautiful moments involves Gere tap-dancing.

I loved “Chicago”. It’s a musical with meaning. It’s got soul, it makes you want to move, and it’s loud – as it should be. Aside from a few musical numbers I didn’t particularly muster, signs of hard work transpired throughout the film as I watched. Sometimes, the film is so well shot that it’s hard to blink. Marshall directed a remake of the classic musical “Annie” in 1999, which makes “Chicago” his second directorial effort. This is his gem. This is the one that will bring him up – possibly up on the stage at this year’s Oscar ceremony. “Chicago” can be talked about and complimented and praised and so on. In the end, you must witness it to believe it. I did – and I already want to see it again.

 

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