And All That Jazz: Chicago at 20

On one level, Chicago, the 1975 musical by John Kander and Fred Ebb, seemed like a pretty safe bet for adaptation. A 1996 Broadway revival became a smash hit; it is still running today. But the material–a cynical take on the media circus surrounding the murder trials of two beautiful women in the 1920s–is not a natural fit for a realist cinematic style. Kander and Ebb took inspiration from varied vaudeville acts of the 20s; characters winked at the audience and had little psychological depth. Both the original and revival featured stripped-down sets–looks not made for cinema. Then, there was the show’s intimidating legacy: it was directed by the legendary Bob Fosse, whose angular choreography (with shoulder rolls, jazz hands, and double snaps) further emphasized that Chicago’s characters were metatheatrical performers directly soliciting audience attention. Ann Reinking, Fosse’s partner who had performed in the original Chicago, both starred in and choreographed the ‘96 revival, in a style heavily inspired by Fosse.

Marshall wisely realized that trying to ape Fosse was a fool’s errand, and choreographed the film himself. It gives a feel of Fosse’s louche sexiness, and the dancing is skillfully captured in combinations of long shots and close ups. To make song-and-dance sequences  and transitions into the songs more “realistic,” Marshall decided that the musical numbers would occur inside the head of one of the lovely murderesses, Roxie Hart (Renée Zellwegger). In dramatic moments, Roxie retreats into a dream world of a swanky cabaret, where most of the numbers are performed. Sometimes this means frequent cuts between “real” and “cabaret” worlds, which can be revealing but often have diminishing returns. The transition between the reality of Roxie’s prison life into performance space is particularly effective in the famous “Cell Block Tango,” where female prisoners sing and dance about how they men they offed “had it comin’.” The transition permits the theatricality of the number, and Marshall then stays out of its way. In “Roxie,” when Zellwegger’s character fantasizes about becoming a vaudeville star, she sings and dances in front of a wall of mirrors, and slinks through black space in her white sparkly bodysuit. It’s an image worthy of the studio musicals of yore. 

Chicago proves how smoothly a film can sail along with the presence of honest-to-God movie stars. As Velma Kelly, the brazen and tough-and-nails vaudevillian murderess, Catherine Zeta-Jones owns this film. Jones had worked in musical theater before, and boy does it show; you can’t look away from her as she uses her seductive voice to deliver the provocative material seductively, but with a menacing undercurrent. Her dancing in heels and spangly lingerie is continually, ruthlessly on point. Zellweger is not such a natural, but that works since her character is an aspiring performer with little talent, and she tries a lot harder than other inexperienced stars in movie musicals. Her breathy, babydoll voice suits Roxie’s transition into an overeager naif to a schemer and preener playing to the camera and the court.

There are also some real barn-burners from supporting characters. Queen Latifah, as a gleefully corrupt prison matron, dishes up voluptuous venality in her introductory number. John C. Reilly, playing Roxie’s avuncular chump of a husband, is great throughout, but he just knocks out of it the park with his number “Mr. Cellophane,” a sad clown act on a bare stage that’s more emotional for its stagy style. 

The huge casting misstep is Richard Gere as Billy Flynn, Velma and Roxie’s shady attorney. In the ‘75 production, Jerry Orbach played Flynn as an oily huckster, In ‘96, James Naughton had an equally effective dapper amorality. For reasons, Gere adapts the Mid-Atlantic English of a 20s radio announcer, and a bucket of smarm to boot. He entreats the audience, not to show off his amoral sangfroid, but for their love and applause. It’s a problem in the film’s bloated second half, which focuses on Roxie’s trial, then cuts songs in the name of plot and character development. We spent too much time just waiting for Velma and Roxie’s glitzy, virtuosic double act, which is a banger of an ending: tap dancing and glitter, shot and edited with finesse and frenzy.

In the subsequent demand for movie musicals, Marshall made a few more (the forgettable Nine, the impressively not completely terrible Into the Woods, and the coming-soon live-action version of Disney’s Little Mermaid). If he has not covered himself with movie musical glory, his ideas about workarounds to make movie musicals more “realistic” or “authentic” show that you can produce interesting, if not entirely consistent results if you put some thought into it. But Tom Hooper’s attempts to make musical movies more immediate by shooting without playback in Les Misérables led to a visually incoherent picture and some seriously uneven performances. Hopper took this reasoning to a ludicrous end point when his decision that realistic “digital fur” was a good enough reason to do a “realistic” movie version of a show about talking and dancing cats. For all its dull or lower aspects, Chicago proves the need for a renewal of creative thinking about winding together cinematic realism and musical spectacle.  

“Chicago” is now streaming on HBO Max and available for digital rental or purchase.

Julia Sirmons writes about film, media and performance. Her work has appeared in Bright Wall/Dark Room, CrimeReads, The Theatre Times and Another Gaze. She has a PhD in Theatre and Performance from Columbia University.

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