"Oh, yes, oh, yes, oh, yes, they both, oh, yes, they both, oh, yes, they both reached for the gun, the gun, the gun, the gun, oh, yes, they both reached for the gun, for the gun."
In the summer of 2001, shortly before its skyline forever changed, New York City was the vacation destination for me and a couple of my friends. One of the greatest surprises of that brief trip came on an extremely rainy Sunday afternoon when my friend David and I caught the Broadway show "Chicago" at the Shubert Theatre. I had been pulling for "The Phantom of the Opera," but they are black on Sundays. Even though all the billboards pumped up its sex appeal, "Chicago" wasn't my top choice; still, that's what David wanted, and I had no better alternative. What an amazing experience! For our performance, Nana Visitor (who portrayed Kira Nerys on Star Trek: Deep Space 9) played the role of Roxie Hart and Vicki Lewis (NewsRadio) starred as Velma Kelly. While Lewis' performance was excellent, Visitor's was simply astounding. Knowing her very well from her time on DS9, I was thoroughly unprepared for her singing and dancing skills. I had no idea she had it in her. I watched her with jaw dropped, loving every second of her time on stage. To this day, I can still close my eyes and see her performance during "They Both Reached for the Gun," my absolute favorite moment from the musical. Though playing a puppet for Billy Flynn, Visitor's facial expressions were so alive and vigorous. It was one of those thrilling moments when a performance is so beyond expectations that it becomes magical. Top that off with the sheer pleasure and frenetic delight of the song itself, and those two minutes are the barometer for my appreciation of "Chicago."
With all the praise and hype that has surrounded the 2002 Oscar winner for Best Picture of the Year, let's talk not just about Chicago the movie but also about how it compares to the current Broadway revival.
Facts of the Case
Do you promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the
Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones, Entrapment, The Mask of Zorro, Traffic) and her sister Veronica are a popular act at the Onyx Club in Chicago. That is until Velma catches her husband and Veronica performing a little one-on-one routine (#17). Incensed, she shoots them both. Unfazed, she rushes to the club to perform the newly minted solo act. Quick police work by District Attorney Harrison (Colm Feore, National Security, The Sum of All Fears) leads to Velma's arrest at the end of her sizzling routine.
In the audience is Velma's biggest fan, Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger, Bridget Jones's Diary, Nurse Betty, Jerry Maguire), who dreams of becoming a stage star herself. Her lover, Fred Casely (Dominic West, The Wire, Rock Star, 28 Days), has convinced Roxie that he has connections at the club and that he'll be able to get her a gig at the Onyx. But, a month after Velma's headline-grabbing double murder, Roxie discovers that Fred is lying. Taking a page from Velma's book, she shoots him dead.
Initially able to convince her husband, Amos (John C. Reilly, The Hours, Gangs of New York, Magnolia), to take the heat for her, Roxie is about to get away with murder. But an excellent deduction by D.A. Harrison leads to her confession and arrest. It's going to be a hanging, he declares, and Roxie is sent off to Cook County Jail where she is quickly indoctrinated into the system.
But jail is not always as bad as it seems, especially when it's run by Matron Mama Norton (Queen Latifah, Bringing Down the House, The Bone Collector, Set It Off), who lives by the motto "If you're good to Mama, Mama's good to you." Mama knows how fickle Chicago is, and the city is in love with the rash of local murderesses. The current favorite is Velma Kelly, but Mama can smell change in the air, and the next big thing could be the pretty, young Roxie Hart.
Give Mama a little cash, and she'll use her connections for you. With Velma, Mama hooked her up with the best defense attorney in Chicago, Billy Flynn (Richard Gere, Unfaithful, The Mothman Prophecies, Runaway Bride). Billy is good, and he's never lost a case. He's using all of his skills, including manipulating the press—in particular, Mary Sunshine (Christine Baranski, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Bulworth, The Birdcage)—to get Velma out of jail. But then Roxie arrives, and, with a recommendation from Mama, a couple thousand dollars from Amos, and a quick peek at the newspaper, Billy takes Roxie's case. But Billy isn't about being fair, he's about publicity, so he all but abandons Velma and focuses his energies on Roxie, causing a fierce rivalry to explode between the two women. Each hopes to utilize her burgeoning celebrity to propel herself into a successful stage career once Billy gets her off.
As Roxie's trial approaches, will Billy give any time to Velma? Will his perfect record be blemished by the apparently open and shut case against Roxie? Will either of the women realize her dream?
Would you please tell the audience, err, the jury what happened?
Obviously, I have yet to mention that Chicago is a musical; I've presumed that's a given fact known by everyone. But, as it's the most important facet of the film, we must first address the hook that was developed to fit the music into the film. "Chicago" is staged so that the performers often sing to the audience—a true vaudeville—but that can't work in this film, for it's a film with a serious storyline, murder; having characters stopping to sing and dance won't succeed. Hence, the hook is that our main character, Roxie, slips into fantastic daydreams in which the characters break into song and dance relevant to the situations. Thus, while the seriousness of the murder story is maintained, the energy of the musical numbers can be expressed via these fantasy sequences. Does it work? Absolutely, though it's a forgivable stretch at times. However, several of the original musical numbers—"A Little Bit of Good," "I Know a Girl," and "Class"—had to be nixed as they couldn't fit into the trick because Roxie isn't involved in those scenes. Additionally, a few other songs—"My Own Best Friend," "Me and My Baby," and "When Velma Takes the Stand"—were cut to maintain the energy and pace of the film. All in all, the concept is well constructed and works charmingly for the film, capturing the vaudeville feel of the original musical. And, even though purist fans of the musical may take severe umbrage at this, I like the fact some of the songs were cut, for the second act felt a bit long. Actually, the movie still drags a touch in the same spot.
Chicago the movie is the actually the antithesis of "Chicago" the musical. Why? The set design and costumes. On the big screen with its one-shot deal, a couple million dollars could be invested in intricate costumes and marvelous set designs: an inviting Onyx Theater, a cold county jail, and an authentic courtroom, among others. Each of these three was created in 360-degree detail, adding to the realism. Be it in the minute details of the stage curtain, a dress, a brilliant wall of lights, or the three stories of the jail, Chicago works hard to create an aura of believability. You are meant to feel as if you are in 1930s Chicago, witnessing these events unfolding around you. But then, as Roxie daydreams and we're transported into her world of song and dance, the sets and costumes explode into fantastic colors and amazing lushness: a simple courtroom is transformed into a three-ring circus with acrobats, streamers, and dozens of whimsical people in decadent dress; a jail becomes the stage for a devilish tango performed by its sexy and scantily-clad occupants; and a press conference turns into a marionette show filled with lavishly costumed reporters. Chicago is an opulent display of glitz and glamour.
On the Broadway stage, however, with actors working hard five or even six days a week, the set design and costumes are less than you would expect. It's minimalistic design at its fullest! The entirety of the stage design for "Chicago" is a simple bleacher-like structure that sits a small jazz band. It's a black set on a black stage with black curtains. On occasion, a chair or a table is brought out for a number, and then quickly removed from the stage. The "bleacher" is often used to enter and exit the characters, and that's the end of it. No fancy details, no fabulous designs, no excess. Even the costumes are simple with little adornment. There are few costume changes, and each new piece of clothing has been obviously designed from the minimalist mold, with more emphasis given to function than form.
So, if you've seen the movie, you haven't seen the musical. They present the same story in their own fashion and end up being two entirely different creatures. Is one better than the other? Let's get back to that in a bit, after we focus some more on the movie.
As an Oscar winner, Chicago obviously did something right—or was it a matter of being in the right place at the right time? Was Chicago really the best movie released in 2002? Skirting those important questions, it's time to look at what works in Chicago, and there is quite a bit. Let's start with the skilled direction of Rob Marshall, a man who had previously only directed television movies. He came up with the twist of the daydreams, finally allowing the musical to find its form for the movie screen. His vision, knowledge of the musical, and sheer abundance of energy helped mold Chicago into an excellent homage to the Broadway production. It's a fitting tribute to the many people who've worked on the Bob Fosse musical over these many years. He explored, tweaked, revised, and embellished the revival while staying absolutely true to it. Not allowing it to be overtly changed, Marshall captured the essence of the piece and brought it out for millions of people to see, creating a new legion of fans around the world. His task was not an easy one, yet he fulfilled it with admirable skill.
And then there's the remarkable group of individuals who were brought together for this film: Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, Queen Latifah, John C. Reilly, Colm Feore, Christine Baranski, and all the terrific supporting actors throughout. All these individuals have been in good movies and bad movies, but none have been in musicals before. Maybe you were like me and you wondered how Gere or Zeta-Jones was going to pull this one off. Were they really going to sing? Dance? Could they? Would they even try? Who knew that Zeta-Jones grew up in musical theater? Who knew that Gere was more than an officer and a gentleman? I had little faith that these actors would be able to bring their parts to life; boy, was I ever wrong. Each of these people did an incredible job. They're all talented actors who easily handled the serious aspects of the film with aplomb, but their efforts in the musical dream world are beyond expectations. And, yes, they all did their own singing and dancing, and they're quite good. With an obvious large amount of rehearsal, each was able to give the gusto needed for his or her routine. Most surprising of all, though, is Reilly. When he performs "Mr. Cellophane," he drips with emotion and you can feel his loneliness. He's the heart, soul, and conscience of the film, and this number will mesmerize you with its surprising raw beauty. On the other hand, as good as Gere is, I have to say that I found his singing voice a bit too nasal. But, as in all things, you can't win them all.
Though I feel somewhat awkward with what I'm about to say, I think it's necessary in keeping with the raw sexual energy of the film—and I have no doubt many of you will wholeheartedly disagree. In looking at our two leading ladies, Zellweger and Zeta-Jones, there are some obvious differences between them, which helps add another layer of dimension to their performances. But I have to say that when put side by side, Zellweger is easily overpowered by Zeta-Jones' sexuality. Again, that may be in keeping with each character—Velma, the sultry sex kitten, and Roxie, the naïve imp—but I felt it was too unbalanced in favor of Zeta-Jones. Roxie is meant to be as sexy as Velma but instead comes across as a girl who really has to try too hard. Now comes the delicate part. In the real world, Roxie wears very plain attire, but when she enters her fantasies, her clothing becomes very provocative—short, sequined dresses with plunging necklines. As her entire fantasy wardrobe exposes lots of flesh, I'm sorry to say that it didn't work for me. She was simply too skinny and pasty, and, a plunging neckline should have something to show for it, which it does not here.
I've already mentioned the wonderful stage and costume design, so that doesn't need another go, but let's not forget the choreography. While faithful to the musical, there was room to adapt and evolve the routines into bigger and perhaps better routines. In the musical, the vixens of the cellblock had to hold fake cell bars as they sang "The Cell Block Tango," but in the movie, there exists an actual cell block, so now they have room to enhance the routine. This is just one of the many examples, and John DeLuca, Dennis Faye, Rob Marshall (him again!), Cynthia Onrubia, and Joey Pizzi deserve a huge round of applause for their work in the fabulous dance numbers.
There is so much more than can be said about this movie/musical, but I think I shall stop here and move on to the details of the DVD. What kind of treatment does the best picture of 2002 deserve on DVD? We fans of the medium would certainly say, "the best," but it's a mixed bag that depends on the studio. Last year's winner (A Beautiful Mind) was afforded an excellent two-disc set, yet Chicago is given but the single-disc treatment. Presented in a beautiful anamorphic widescreen print, Chicago will burst from your television with its superb transfer. The bold palette is richly and accurately represented in its full spectrum with stunning reds and deep, rich blacks. Sharpness and detail are abundant with no transfer errors to be seen whatsoever. The only minor quibble is an occasional splash of grain from the anamorphic process that is sometimes just a bit too noticeable (e.g., the first fantasy scene with Roxie cutting into "All That Jazz"). Otherwise, it's a great print, just a notch down from reference quality. In this case, perhaps even more important is the audio. A musical must sound great, so it's with great delight I can say the audio tracks do the movie justice. You can choose from either a DTS or Dolby Digital track, each handsomely surrounding you as the musical numbers progress. Music from a mere left and right speaker simply cannot do justice to the immense joy and satisfaction of sound from five surround speakers, and Chicago capitalizes on that with verve. While both are admirable transfers with clear dialogue, great use of the surrounds, solid bass, full harmonics, and dynamic range, if you have a DTS-equipped receiver, you're in luck. As in most cases, the DTS option is the better choice. It is far more crisp, brilliant, immersive, and encompassing. When comparing the two, you can surely hear the difference, with the Dolby Digital coming across a bit weak in comparison. In the end, you'll have no complaints about any of the transfers.
But then there's the travesty of the bonus materials. For a movie that has a decades-long history, Chicago's extra features are incomplete at best. The first item you'll probably watch is the hyped deleted musical scene "Class," with Queen Latifah and Catherine Zeta-Jones, and an optional commentary by director Rob Marshall and writer Bill Condon. As much as they tout how great the scene is, I don't agree and I solidly back its deletion. They rightly mention why it had to go: it doesn't maintain the hook of Roxie's fantasy and it slows down the film. Further, I even posit that it's not the greatest song in the first place. Next up is a 25-minute "making of" featurette/documentary. On the one hand, it is an informative and insightful piece with a nice mixture of behind-the-scenes footage, historical information, interviews, and the like. On the other hand, it's terribly incomplete, lacking a truly in-depth look at the intense making of this film. It's good, but it should have been so much more. Lastly, there's an audio commentary with Marshall and Condon. This isn't a bad track, but it, too, is a little off key. While they relate some cute stories, some behind-the-scenes info, and some interesting technical information, it's far too shallow. More often than not, they praise themselves for the great work they and their crew did. While that's all well and good, that's not what I want to hear. Continue to dish some dirt, tell me what really happened, tell me how it all came together. That's what a commentary should be. At least it wasn't filled with those long, insufferable lengths of silence.
Thus, the bonus materials are a sham. There's no depth; it's a surface treatment of a movie that has a rich and deep history. Tell me more about all the various incarnations over the years; tell me what's changed and remained the same over time. Where are the outtakes? Where are all the song and dance rehearsals? Where are the storyboards? Where are the trailers? Where's the package that the 2002 Oscar winner for Best Picture truly deserves? Where did it go? Is it in the pipeline? Have we just been set up yet again for a double-dip? From the stray comments in the commentaries, I believe that there is a wealth of material yet available, and we will see a two-disc set next year. Mark my words.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I have to admit that I have yet to run into a person who has not enjoyed this movie; not a one. In fact, I cannot recall any truly negative comments about the film at all—the worst being that they only "liked" the film. Oh, I'm sure I could surf the 'net and find some worse ones, but I think I'll take a pass.
Obviously, you have to be somewhat partial to the musical form to appreciate and enjoy the film. If you get fidgety when someone bursts out into song, then this isn't going to be your cup of tea. But, if you're ready for something with high energy that's just a little bit different from your mainstream offering, then Chicago will appeal to you.
Many paragraphs ago I made a quick comment about Gere's singing voice, that I found it to be too nasal; many, many paragraphs ago I also made a comment about how the number "They Both Reached for the Gun" is my barometer of appreciation for "Chicago." Well, these two fine points come together as Gere's Billy Flynn is the principal voice in the song. Combining his already nasal voice with the upper register "puppet voice" for the song, I have to admit my favorite scene from the musical is a mere shadow on film. Gere's voice nearly ruins the entire magic of the scene; it's just too sharp and bitter to let the song envelop you. Further, and you may be surprised by this, but as energetic and vigorous as the marionette routine is in the movie, it still pales in comparison to the sheer raucous energy of the number in the musical. The pace is brisk on film, but it's leisurely compared to the Broadway show. Don't believe me? Compare the song on the two soundtracks. But don't get me wrong; it's still near the top of my favorite scenes from the film.
Chicago is a mere wisp of a story that is held together by its terrific songs. That's what stuck with me after I saw the Broadway show, and it's still what sticks with me after seeing the movie. But on the movie screen, it has the luxury to bolster the story and enhance the ambiance, and it works like a charm. The movie is a joyous reincarnation of that wonderful Bob Fosse musical. While strong on so many fronts, Chicago cannot be fully appreciated until you've seen it on Broadway. Hence, I fully recommend that you seize any chance you have to visit New York or see a touring production; you must witness the revival. But, even if you're not that lucky, you'll still have this wonderful DVD in your collection so you can listen to and watch these amazing numbers over and over again. Do not simply rent this movie, you must buy it. Do not be afraid of the music. It's wonderfully accessible, and you'll find yourself humming "Mr. Cellophane" or "All That Jazz" for many days to come.
Understandable. Understandable. Yes, it's perfectly understandable. Comprehensible. Comprehensible. Not a bit reprehensible. It's so defensible!
Chicago is hereby found not guilty on all charges. All parties are free to rouge their knees, roll their stockings down, and all that jazz.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Director Rob Marshall and Screenwriter Bill Condon
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