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"Spectacular, extravagant, and 'all that jazz!'"
"This one makes you crave for the next big thing, the next big song and dance."
"The film is a remarkable ensemble piece that clearly stands apart from the Broadway show."
Chicago  

Cast

Velma Kelly: Catherine Zeta-Jones
Roxie Hart: Renee Zellweger
Billy Flynn: Richard Gere
Amos Hart: John C. Reilly
'Mama' Morton: Queen Latifah
Mary Sunshine: Christine Baranski
Bandleader: Taye Diggs
Kitty Baxter: Lucy Liu
Review December 2002

Spectacular, extravagant, and 'all that jazz!' Pure and simple, "Chicago" is a fun film to watch, full of great music and a bevy of actors turned divas. Taking the Tony award winning musical and transforming it to the silver screen, director Rob Marshall takes the baton from Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge" and propels the modern day musical to a whole new level. Originally opening as a Broadway play in 1975, "Chicago" is food for the sensationalist soul - full of greed, adultery, exploitation, violence, and corruption.

Immediately, we are cast inside a swanky nightclub. Songstress Velma Kelly is running late for her vaudeville show in which she is a co-headliner with her sister. But her sister fails to turn up and Kelly goes on to perform without her. As the performance ("All That Jazz") comes to an end, the police arrive and arrest her for the murder of her sister. It would appear that Kelly shot her for having an affair with her husband. Meanwhile, within the club, an aspiring showgirl, Roxie Hart is in awe.

Roxie exits that evening with another nightclub regular: Fred Casely. The two are married and having an affair of their own. When Casely dumps her, Roxie shoots and kills him. After lying to her husband Amos about the sordid affair and using him as an alibi, the police reveal evidence to the contrary and send Roxie to the women's block in Cook County Jail. Interestingly, she is placed in the same cellblock with other women who, like Roxie, have murdered their lovers. Presiding over the women's prison is "Mama" Morton (Latifah). Making good use of her authority, Morton exchanges money for favors ("When You're Good to Momma"). Currently, she is helping Velma get acquitted to ensure her return to vaudeville fame.

But Velma's thunder is stolen by Roxie - the latest tabloid sensation. Not only does she steal the limelight from Velma, but also the services of Velma's lawyer, Billy Flynn. Together, Billy and Roxie concoct a story suitable for consumption by the tabloids, one that makes her a victim instead of a felon. Almost overnight, Roxie becomes the town's new sweetheart. But in the process, she also becomes the puppet of Billy Flynn. After a brief touch of fame, Roxie gets arrogant and drops Flynn for a short while, thinking she can do better on her own. But following the hanging of one of the cell row murderesses, Roxie panics and comes crawling back to Billy. Of course, none of this is possible without the help of her husband Amos, who continually goes unnoticed ("Mr. Cellophane"), yet persuades Billy to take her back.

As Roxie's trial approaches, Billy orchestrates a three-ring circus ("Razzle Dazzle") to confuse the jury. They convince the jury that Roxie is pregnant with Amos' baby despite a miscalculation in arithmetic and that both Roxie and Fred reached for the gun. Despite the attempts of Velma to sabotage the trial, Roxie gets her acquittal. But as soon as the verdict is given, another murderess tops the headlines, sending Billy to another show. Disappointed that her 15 minutes of fame are over, Roxie realizes that the only person who understands her is Velma. And when Velma gets out from prison, the two team up for a rowdy rendition of "All that Jazz."

I must admit, I still am not a big "Moulin Rouge" fan. In fact, after witnessing that film, I cringed at the mere thought of going to see another modern day musical. It was just too much for me to see actors and actresses with untrained vocal chords belting out modern day songs. Had I not been a film critic and had "Chicago" not been nominated for Best Picture, I might have passed on this one entirely. And that would have been a shame. Are Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renee Zellweger, and Richard Gere up to the task? A resounding yes! And don't forget the fantastic rapper/actress turned chorus girl, Queen Latifah and the multitalented John C. Reilly. Both more than hold their own.

These days, the only thing that resembles a musical is an animated Disney film that throws in musical numbers for children to sing along to. From an adult perspective, these tunes only disrupt the story and make nails on a chalkboard sound like Beethoven's 5th Symphony. But with "Chicago," the music is the film. The music is important, connecting one plot point to the next. And unlike many wannabe musicals, this one makes you crave for the next big thing, the next big song and dance. It also gets you reminiscing about how great musicals can be: "Singin' in the Rain," "West Side Story," "An American in Paris," etc.

The team of John Kander and Fred Ebb, also known for "Cabaret," "Zorba," "Kiss of the Spider Woman," etc., wrote the lyrics and music for "Chicago." They've been a team since 1965 and like any fine wine, only get better with age. With a mix of rag, Dixieland, and jazz, Kander and Ebb carry the audience from one mood to the next, from the humble "Funny Honey" to the dark "Cell Block Tango." And, in all of its splendor, it's hard to miss the influence of Bob Fosse, co-author and director of the original, who was also an exceptional choreographer.

It's hard to believe that this musical was originally released in the '70's. And it's even harder to believe that the musical was based on historical events dating back to 1926 and the real-life murderess, Beulah Annan (Roxie Hart's character). Suffice to say, "Chicago" was well ahead of its time. After all, who would have thought that the explosion of sensationalism went back to the beginning of the 20th Century? The trials of Oliver North, O.J. Simpson, the Clarence Thomas hearings, etc. All were incidences that Billy Flynn would relegate to the big top. "It's all a circus, kid. A three-ring circus. These trials - the whole world - all show business."

The Broadway musical opened in November 1996 and won a slew of Tony Awards, Critics Circle Awards, and even snagged a Grammy for Best Broadway Cast Album Recording. The film is a remarkable ensemble piece that clearly stands apart from the Broadway show. It also stands apart as one of the best of the year and should continue to accrue more accolades at this year's Academy Awards in March. No 'Razzle Dazzle' required.



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