WFTB Score: 15/20
The plot: Imprisoned following the murder of boyfriend Fred Casely, vulnerable wannabe singer Roxie Hart finds herself in the company of notorious performer/killer Velma Kelly in Cook County jail, run by the charmingly corrupt ‘Mama’ Morton. As both girls vie for the attention of the media and infallible lawyer Billy Flynn, Roxie’s trial date approaches, and she realises there could be much more at stake than her future on the stage.
Following the trail blazed by Moulin Rouge!, in some ways Rob Marshall’s film had a harder job to do than merely reinvigorate the film musical. For whereas Luhrmann created his work from scratch, Marshall was filming Kander and Ebb’s well-established, and much loved, Broadway and West End hit. Marshall brings the songs to life via the vivid imagination of Roxie Hart, but while switching the leads’ hair colour, has he also switched off the energy that makes the live show so popular?
Chicago opens with Roxie (Renee Zellweger) witnessing the final night of Velma Kelly’s (Catherine Zeta-Jones) double act, final because Velma has murdered both her co-star sister and philandering husband. Promised an introduction with people who can make things happen by boyfriend Fred Casely (The Wire’s Dominic West), Roxie imagines herself onstage; but when Fred starts treating her rough and owns up that he was just using her, she reacts badly and shoots him in the chest. Initially Roxie’s dim mechanic husband Amos (John C. Reilly) willingly takes the blame, but when he learns of his wife’s adultery he retracts his statement and Roxie is sent to the slammer, meeting up with Velma and the ample charms of Mama Morton (Queen Latifah) who is willing to accommodate her guests with anything, given the right amount of compensation. Although Velma starts off as top dog in the prison, when Amos scrapes together enough money to temporarily hire the services of Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) Roxie suddenly becomes the darling of Chicago’s radio and press, and it is her trial that everyone wants to see. Whether they most want to see her set free or swing is quite another matter.
By separating the ‘real’ spoken word scenarios from the ‘imagined’ staged songs, Rob Marshall nimbly keeps control of Chicago and avoids the incongruity of having people seemingly burst into song for no reason (not that it ever bothers me – I know what to expect from musicals!). Accordingly, he keeps all of the highly stylised (Bob Fosse-created, no doubt) features of the show’s best-loved numbers, and in two particular instances this results in extraordinary cinema. The first is the Cell Block Tango, an extraordinary fusion of set design, dancing, lyrics and music that absolutely mesmerises, not least because of the physical performances of the lesser cast members (I presume seasoned performers of Chicago on stage); the second is the brilliant We Both Reached For The Gun, featuring great comical work from both Gere and Zellweger as they pull the strings of radio announcer Mary Sunshine (Christine Baranski) and the assorted press. These stand-out moments help to overcome the slightly repetitive nature of some of the music and the relegation of the pleasingly distinct Class, with its violin and vocal harmonies, to the DVD extras.
By and large, the film stars acquit themselves well, Catherine Zeta-Jones in particular showing talent for both song and dance and managing to lose her Welsh accent for an entire film; and whilst her body shape may not be to everyone’s tastes, Renee Zellweger has a good voice and is a good deal more engaging here than in Jerry Maguire or either of the Bridget Jones films, helped by a screenplay that quickly brings Roxie back down to Earth whenever she gets too big for her boots (the hanging of the Hungarian inmate is particularly affecting). John C. Reilly is cutely anonymous as Amos and makes the most of his number, Mr Cellophane, and Queen Latifah is quite a force of nature. Richard Gere, meanwhile, is trickier to assess. When speaking he is excellent, but in the staged singing sequences he adopts a different persona, smirking into the middle distance at nobody in particular; and whilst he can undoubtedly hold a tune, there is something vaguely Cockney about his voice that veers once or twice towards the Van Dyke-ish. Also, I found that his tap dance (if it is always him) distracted from the plot twists of the trial, rather than enhancing them.
Despite a few other complaints – such the overblown nature of Lucy Liu’s cameo – and a feeling that the film sanitises the seedy jazz-club atmosphere that abounds in the theatre, Chicago the film does retain the stage show’s energy and is still enormous fun. This is in no small measure thanks to the witty and adversarial acting of both Zeta-Jones and Zellweger, who send the audience home happy following their trials and tribulations with a bright and blousy closing number. For all the film has to say about the fleeting nature of celebrity, it’s the razzle dazzle of the song and dance that gives Chicago its enduring appeal.