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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