Image source. Copyright Miramax Films, 2002.
For some reason, Rob Marshall’s 2002 musical Chicago doesn’t get as much love as it should. A lot of people rank it as one of the worst Best Picture winners of all time, right up there with Rocky, Crash, and other middling trash. I’m not sure where they’re coming from. Sure, it’s not particularly “serious” or “dramatic,” but Chicago is still one blast of a movie musical. I’d go so far as to say that it’s one of the best musicals I’ve ever seen.
Chicago tells the story of two up-and-coming nightclub divas in Roaring-Twenties Chicago, a booming metropolis rife with illegal booze, licentious sex, and romantic strife. Velma (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is an already-prominent nightclub singer who kills her sister and husband in a fit of rage when she discovers their affair. Roxie (Renée Zellweger) is a wannabe star who kills her lover (Dominic West) after she learns he lied to her about having nightclub connections. Both of them are thrown into the so-called “Murderess’ Row” in the local Cook County prison, run by the openly corrupt Mama Morton (Queen Latifah). Each of them seeks out the aid of Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), a prolix, cunning lawyer with a near-perfect record of getting clients off the hook. But as both Velma and Roxie end up learning, breaking out of jail requires winning the sympathy and attention of the media. And as every good celebrity knows, only one person at a time can have her “15 minutes of fame.”
Chicago works on several levels. First, the songs are great. Well-designed, memorable, stirring: these jazzy, energetic, rhythmic numbers will have you grooving along throughout. The performances by Gere, Zellweger and Zeta-Jones hit all the right notes (in more ways than one); you won’t find any Russell Crowe-Javert duds here. Beyond that, Marshall’s presentation of the numbers also actively takes advantage of the movie-musical form. He juxtaposes characters’ musical numbers with the actions of characters in “real life,” directly linking the emotions displayed in the songs with the motives behind what the actual people are doing. It’s the kind of “dual-reality” presentation style that doesn’t work on a Broadway stage but produces wonders on a flexible digital screen, and Marshall really maximizes returns with it.
But Chicago is also more than just a well-made collection of songs. It also poses some thought-provoking questions about the fleeting nature of fame, ambition, and success. Publicity, Roxie and Velma both discover, is a fickle creature. Anybody anytime can easily boot you off the front page with a bigger sob story. Is Roxie’s struggle to get out of jail and land on the stage worth the trouble if, as we see towards the end, people forget about her the moment she’s declared innocent? And does it say something about us that the jury in the movie is so easily swayed by Billy’s crafty but empty rhetoric, that the headlines so easily swerve from one human interest story to the next? Chicago serves as a testament to the ubiquitous, blind American interest in gaudy excess. Glitz and glamour look good on Zellweger and Zeta-Jones. But beneath them, Chicago shows us, lies a wreck of heartache, betrayal, and reckless selfishness.
I suspect I’m sticking up for a lost cause here, considering the negative reputation Chicago has acquired in the already-sordid history of Oscar Best Picture winners. But they chose Chicago for a reason. Not many films portray the paradoxical splendor and superficiality of show business more ably than this pitch-perfect musical. It speaks to both our never-ending fascination with the spotlight and our inability to cope when the lights turn away. With Chicago, Zellweger and Zeta-Jones get to take one much-coveted shot beyond the mere spotlight, towards immortality. Here’s hoping they get it.
Starring: Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, Queen Latifah, John O’Reilly, Lucy Liu
Running Time: 113 minutes
Produced by: Martin Richards
Directed by: Rob Marshall
Written by: Bill Condon
Based on the Bob Fosse Broadway musical of the same name.