Just when you thought we’d lost the knack for producing a live-action musical film here in the States, along comes CHICAGO. Set in 1920s in that toddling town, this hard-as-nails tale of sex, politics, fame, and most of all jazz, is a big, splashy, brassy confection wrapped up in a bow with enough bugle beads and sequins to circle the globe twice and finish with a flourish.
Our heroines, as such, are Velma Kelly, who killed her husband and her sister when she caught them doing unorthodox acrobatics, and Roxie Hart, who killed her lover when she found out he couldn’t help her get her show biz career going so that she could leave her dull as dust husband. They’re murderers, sure, but the sordid heat-of-passion type of killer rather than the cold, calculating kind. The calculation comes after they”re in the slammer awaiting trial. Thats when their silk-shirted sleaze lawyer, Billy Flynn, in the person of Richard Gere, who’s never lost a case, tries theirs in the media before a trial date is even set. Velma, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones in a sleek bob and vamp eye makeup, and Roxie in the person of kewpie doll Renee Zellweger, trade insults, give press conferences, and jockey to stay in the public eye all while never leaving prison. Not that that stops the eye-popping production numbers, each one topping the last, though none captures the ladies gestalt like a chorus line of murderesses done up as bondage babes and doing a little number entitled He Had It Coming.
Director and choreographer Rob Marshall has done a first-rate job of translating the Bob Fosse stage play to the big screen, blending, as Fosse did, the production numbers into the action with a smooth as silk emcee in the person of Taye Diggs, adding his own piquant narration. From the three-ring circus complete with spangles that erupts during the courtroom sequence, to Queen Latifah in gold lame as the prison matron, Mamma, explaining the rules to the prisoners, to the soulful solo by John C. Reilly as Velma’s long-suffering cuckold of a husband, they don’t so much move the action along, as fill out the emotional life of these characters. Tha’ts right. For all the sizzle there’s a whole lot more than glitz going one here. There’s smarts in this script by Bill Condon based on the the original musical’s book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse and lyrics by Ebb, that nail our obsession with scandal and play it for knife-edged laughs. Add to that actors who don’t just sing the words, but sink their teeth into them with the meaty bravura that they deserve.
And while its stars vary in their dancing abilities, none is asked to do more than he or she can muster. In fact, the way the dance sequences are cut, showing each to perfection, you can’t fault a flourish or a twirl, whether its Zeta Jones giving her all with a high-energy pitch for a post-incarceration road show with Roxie, or Gere doing a tap dance, literally, intercut with some similar fancy verbal footwork in the courtroom. As for the trademark Fosse chorus line, it’s here with all its sexual posing complete with blank expressions and writhing contortions that just dont seem quite humanly possible.
If you’re a fan of CHICAGO on stage, you won’t be disappointed by its apotheosis to the silver screen. You’ll also enjoy the cameo by the original Velma, Chita Rivera. If you’ve never seen it before, so much the better to be dazzled by the twists and turns the story takes as it sings and dances its way into your heart. In short, it’s a win-win situation and I don’t get to say that often enough about a movie.