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Chicago

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 02/10/05 16:26:33

"A giddy explosion of song, dance, and all that jazz."
5 stars (Awesome)

“Chicago” is the great modern musical “Moulin Rouge” wanted to be. Like that film, “Chicago” is lively, brisk, highly stylized, and full of post-MTV editing techniques. Unlike that film, “Chicago” is relatively pretension-free. “Moulin” was a miserable failure from start to finish; “Chicago” is rousing success.

For the folks who made “Chicago” - both the Broadway musical and its film adaptation - understand fully (where Baz Luhrmann did not) what makes a great musical. We need terrific music, compelling characters, terrific music, knockout choreography, terrific music, fine acting, and terrific music. Did I mention the terrific music? The songs (music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb, for those keeping score) are some of the freshest, coolest, and toe-tappingest to come out of Broadway in ages, even if they were written twenty-five years ago.

“Chicago” the movie is actually an improvement over “Chicago” the musical, as it keeps the great music and Bob Fosse-inspired imagery, but it adds a more structured storyline. (Broadway purists have disagreed, and for fairness I’ll add that I’m definitely no expert on the play. Diehard “Chicago” fans may find quibbles I never noticed.)

The screenplay, from Bill Condon (“Gods and Monsters”), fleshes out the bare bones plot of the source material: In the Windy City of the Roaring Twenties, stage siren Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) has just murdered her husband and her sister, becoming a media darling. Meanwhile, aspiring singer Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger) has also recently committed murder. She’s offed her lover, leaving her husband (John C. Reilly) in the lurch. So it’s off to prison for Roxie, but she’s lucky enough to land the legal aid of Chicago’s top attorney, Billy Flynn (Richard Gere). Flynn’s publicity gymnastics help make Roxie’s case the Trial of the Century - much to the consternation of fading star Velma.

The story, as it stands, is crisp and engaging. The dialogue is slick, the satire biting, the humor fresh, the drama compelling. But the story is not why we watch “Chicago.” It’s the music. The song-and-dance numbers here have an overwhelming zest that reminds us why the musical genre was so popular in the first place, and they force us to ask ourselves why the genre ever died out. Director Rob Marshall (making his theatrical feature debut, following his work helming Disney’s made-for-TV remake of “Annie”) pumps the songs full of life, staging them more or less as they’d appear on Broadway: sparse, stylized settings and gorgeous, complex choreography blending with the vocal talents of the stars to create a treat for the senses.

To list all the perfect musical moments would take up way too much time, so let me briefly highlight my favorites. Gere, with a voice surprisingly perfect for the sound of the 1920s, whips us through tales of showmanship (“Press Conference Rag,” “Razzle Dazzle”). In a genius bit of casting, Queen Latifah plays the slick prison warden, Mama Morton, whose key song is great fun. Zellweger and Zeta-Jones both get their share of show-stopping bits, most memorably a final dance number that shines in its stagy brilliance. And “Cell Block Tango,” a larger-than-life tune showcasing the various women inmates, pumps and grinds with a spot-on intensity that actually manages to out-do the title dance number in “Jailhouse Rock.”

But above all, the most memorable part of the film is Reilly as Amos, Roxie’s rube of a husband. His is the only sympathetic character in the bunch, a doormat for the others to use and abuse as they wish. When his feelings of inadequacy and invisibleness finally pour out in the song “Mr. Cellophane,” it’s a moment of true sadness. Reilly’s everyman persona is so important to making the song ache with sorrow that I can’t imagine any other actor in the role.

My only quibble is that Marshall, perhaps afraid that the public is still not ready to dive head-first back into the musical pool, sets all of the songs not in the reality of the movie, but in the dreamy fantasy world of the characters’ minds. At first I thought this was somewhat of a cop-out, but as the film progressed, the device won me over, as it provided the film with a style all its own.

Because Marshall shows such a keen eye for the lost art of the musical, any disagreements over the modernization of things fade away with the next song. This is a film that knows how to keep piling on the fun. It’s a delicious movie experience and, quite plainly, the best movie musical of the past few decades. If Marshall continues to deliver more movies like these in the upcoming years, we can consider ourselves a very lucky audience.

That’s “Chicago.”

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