In anticipation of Nine, an anticipation that does not wane as time goes, this entry in my list of favourite films falls on Rob Marshall’s first feature film – Chicago. Of the Best Picture winners of this century is there any that has experienced as much backlash as this? Not the well meaning but often choppy A Beautiful Mind, not the expansive but cold Gladiator, not the preachy Million Dollar Baby and not even the upset winner of them all Crash. For some reason this has turned into the ultimate love or hate film – for whatever reason I can’t say. But who cares? Not I. and why not? Because I am a fan of this. There, I said it.
I can remember the first time I saw this. I was up one night, way after my bed time and from that fleeting shot of Renee Zellweger’s blonde locks as we zeroed in on her eyes and then into the crackling lights as that single credit rolled – Chicago. As the effusive score of Ebb & Kander started to play, I knew I was hooked. Because in a way I suppose I grew up in a musical home. My father was an on and off again musician, my mother could recite the dialogue for The Sound of Music, my sister dabbled in dance…I saw many musicals…and although there were some I just could not stand, Chicago just was not one of them.
Chicago tells the story of two convicts Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly who become rivals in jail for the public’s affections. As a straight story, it’s perhaps a bit too thin on plot…but deceptively so. Because this is not a straight story. It’s a satire in every sense of the word. Are there any two female leads as unlovable as Velma and Roxie? Even Margo Channing and Eve Harrington had their good qualities. But as characters their harshness does not diminish the audience’s interest in them. It piques it.
The Original Broadway production of Chicago with Chita Rivera and Gwen Verdon had been notoriously steamrolled by the lighter musical A Chorus Line. But in the wake of a new state of social consciousness in the mid nineties, the revival was a hit opening new doors for the revival of the idea to make it a film. Rob Marshall remarked that Chicago is as unusual as a musical because there isn’t a love song in the score. He then reneged by stating that there was one ‘Roxie’. It’s an astute idea on Marshall’s part and thoroughly accurate. Roxie is in love with herself. Only the most narcissistic person could convince her husband to take the blame for her after she’s just murdered her lover. But I’m ignoring the appeal of the entire film. It’s not the seriousness of the implications; it’s the tongue in cheek manner of all the puns. Even the subtler ones, like having the women dance with red scarves in 'Cell Block Tango' or the mirrors as Roxie sings a lullaby to herself. And yes the louder ones like Queen Latifah’s gregarious and sexually ambivalent matron or Velma’s recitative of #17 – the spread eagle. It’s all deliciously wonderfully, and thoroughly enjoyable.
I can’t fault the cast even if I wanted to. True Richard Gere grates on my nerve, and his annoying persona almost makes me ignore Marshall’s inspired staging of 'Razzle Dazzle' and 'We Both Reached for the Gun'. But his ingratiating nature works well for the slick Billy Flynn, a role he pulls off with alarming aplomb. John C. Reilly has another role as an under-loved husband and the blank faces of the audience as he sings his 'Mr. Cellophane' is sadly amusing. Queen Latifah and Renee Zellweger sizzle in their numbers, and even supporting cast members like Dominic West, Mya, Lucy Liu and Christine Barinski are enjoyable. But it is Catherine Zeta Jones that hooks me.
Reading the script there is a scene that just doesn’t read as well, Velma’s plea to Roxie. How can that sultry diva who crooned about 'All that Jazz' sink to such depths? But Catherine sells it. 'I Can’t Do It Alone' remains as my favourite number of the entire, and that’s saying a lot seeing that there isn’t much of a hook to it. But it’s the head on commitment of Zeta-Jones as we see all her talents, even Roxie can’t help but be sucked in…even if she does turn her offer down. And as Roxie leaves her to ruminate, it’s that longing look on Velma’s face that makes you realise for the first time the harshness of their reality. These women are essentially on death row.
I can’t say that I’m not a bit sad when I think about how people hate this film…but I can’t feel bad or guilty when they say the do…because I don’t. Perhaps, it’s not as fully –inspired as anything Fosse would have done….but then Cabaret is one of the best films ever…musically or otherwise…so Chicago has a lot to live up to. Bill and Rob face the inevitable comparisons to Fosse head and turn into what is almost homage. It’s delightful, it’s cruel, it’s invigorating.