Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.
What's the big deal?
Chicago is a musical crime film released in 2002 and is based on the stage musical of the same name by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse. Set in the titular American city during the 1920's, the film follows two women awaiting trial for murder who clash for the services of a hot-shot lawyer as well as the publicity required for their case. The film stars Catherine Zeta-Jones, Renee Zellweger and Richard Gere and was directed by Rob Marshall, making his directorial debut. Chicago features many songs from the stage show which was itself originally based on a 1927 film of the same name. The film was a hit with critics, winning a total of six Academy Awards including Best Picture and helped to solidify Zeta-Jones as a major Hollywood star. Audiences also enjoyed the film with global earnings of more than $306 million, making it the most successful live-action musical film in history until Mamma Mia! claimed the record six years later.
What's it about?
In 1924, chorus girl and housewife Roxie Hart watches her idol Velma Kelly perform on stage at the Onyx Theatre in Chicago. Desperately seeking a way to further her career, Roxie begins having an affair with furniture salesman Fred Casely after he claims to know how to help her career in showbusiness. However, Velma's life is turned upside-down after the show as she discovers her husband in bed with another woman and Velma shoots both of them dead. Meanwhile, Roxie quickly learns that Fred was lying about his showbiz connections in order to sleep with her. Enraged, Roxie murders Fred and tries to convince her doting husband Amos to take the rap for it. But in the end, the truth comes out and Roxie is arrested for the murder.
On Murderess' Row at the Cook County Jail, Roxie bumps into Velma but finds her friendship rebuffed. Under the influence of the matron Mama Morton, Roxie decides to hire Velma's handsome and smooth-talking lawyer Billy Flynn to help defend her during the trial. The two of them begin to cook up a story, depicting Roxie as a naïve country girl who was corrupted by the fast living of the city and quickly capture the imagination of a rabid press. But Velma is none to happy about having her lawyer - and her spotlight - taken away from her...
What's to like?
I admit that I am not the target audience for this film - I haven't seen the stage version of the show and frankly, I'm not a big fan of musicals to begin with. What I am a fan of are films that generate a palpable sense of atmosphere and Chicago does this very well. From the very opening number featuring Zeta-Jones blasting out 'All That Jazz', the film immediately sets its stall out so viewers are in no doubt as to what it's all about. It's an electrifying start, to be sure. It also feels every bit as flashy as you'd expect - costumes, hairstyles, sets and lighting all look and feel amazing, combining the energy of a theatrical performance with the quality you'd expect from a movie. It's unusual but it works.
Like any of these cinematic adaptations of stage muscials, the cast give it their all to make the concept work and nobody really hits a duff note throughout. Zellweger, Gere and Zeta-Jones are well supported by the likes of the always reliable Reilly, Latifah and Dominic West as Roxie's duplicitous lover who quickly meets the business end of a revolver. All the songs are belted out with aplomb and nearly all the cast get their moment in the spotlight, often literally. Supported by countless dancers all hitting that trademark Fosse style of moves, the film arguably brings the passion and sexiness of the stage show to the big screen so from that perspective, the film is a success. But there was several things about the film that left me feeling a little cold and I struggled to get on board.
- The original play which inspired the Fosse-flavoured remake was actually based on two real-life murder cases that happened in Chicago in 1924. Velma Kelly was based on Belva Gaertner who was accused of the murder of her lover but acquitted. The character of Roxie was inspired by Beulah Annan, another young woman who was acquitted of the murder of her lover thanks to her doting husband coughing up for the city's best defence lawyer - she repaid him by leaving him the day after her trial ended. Watkins is believed to be represented by the character Mary Sunshine in the musical.
- The role of Billy Flynn was offered to John Travolta first but he declined, allowing Gere to replace him. This is the fourth time Travolta has done this after turning down roles in Days Of Heaven, American Gigolo and An Officer And A Gentleman. Travolta later said that he regrets passing on this role.
- Pay close attention to the poster as the unusual way the billing is presented was due to a battle between Zellweger and Zeta-Jones about who would get top billing. If you read it top-to-bottom, Zeta-Jones is first billed but read left-to-right and Zellweger appears first - hence the diagonal listing.
- At the time of writing, this is only the eleventh musical to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards and the most recent winner. The previous two winners were Amadeus in 1984 and Oliver! in 1968.
What's not to like?
My problem with Chicago is partly due to personal taste, I admit. Having not seen the show, I don't know how closely this film adaptation is to the original. But as a stand-alone film, the movie is a surreal musical journey that has all the hallmarks of a Bob Fosse production but little narrative cohesion. I struggled to follow the story or even invest with the characters, despite the unbridled charisma of the film's lead cast. Let's not forget that these two women are murderers, after all. For all the pizzazz and razzle-dazzle the film provides during the musical numbers, there is a distinct lack of story-telling to fill in the blanks for viewers unused to the format. And conceptually, I just couldn't get on board with a film that depicts these two killers trying to showbiz their way out of a prison sentence. It's a bit like Jailhouse Rock but if Elvis's character was a stone cold psychopath instead of someone who accidentally killed someone.
Whenever I've discussed this film with others, I do get very polarised opinions - it is truly movie Marmite, something you'll either love or simply don't get. Unfortunately, I'm very much in the latter camp as musical theatre is something that has always left me feeling cold and eagerly checking my watch every so often, counting down the minutes until I have to catch my bus. What's frustrating is that Chicago is a very well made film but one that sadly doesn't quite work in practise. It's the same issue that meant that Cats would be a non-starter as a project - a concept that works on stage doesn't necessarily work as a film and for me, Chicago is one such example. Once the magic of that dazzling open number fades, it quickly becomes repetitive and disappointingly shallow.
Should I watch it?
I'll concede that Chicago might work better for you than it did for me, assuming that you are more into your musicals than I. The film doesn't work as a movie but if you've never experienced the show then this weirdly works as a trailer for the show. The song and dance routines are superb and the cast give it their all but the film doesn't really work due to its surreal presentation and narrative pitfalls. But at least there are no digital butt holes in the film so there's that.
Great For: ticket sales for the show, award cabinets, fans of musical theatre
Not So Great For: movie fans, paying audiences, other films more deserving of those awards
What else should I watch?
Cinema has long plundered ideas from musical theatre, ever since the dawn of the talkies. Indeed, some of cinema's greatest musical films have come from the boards like Cabaret, West Side Story and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. After a period when they weren't so popular, the success of Chicago led to a resurgence of interest and now, Hollywood regularly produces musical adaptations with big budgets and even bigger stars. The likes of Phantom Of The Opera and Mamma Mia! followed soon after and even in the last year, we have Steven Spielberg's remake of West Side Story and the equally well-received Tick, Tick... Boom! with Andrew Garfield playing composer Jonathan Larson on his quest to make it in the theatre industry.
Of course, musical theatre has also adapted films that managed to capture the imagination. From surreal Eighties comedy Nine To Five to low budget romantic drama Once, seminal disco classic Saturday Night Fever and even King Kong have all been adapted into stage musicals although I'd be lying if I said I had any interest in seeing any of them. Perhaps the king of musical cinema is the King himself - Elvis Presley appeared in thirty two films in dramatic roles, often performing several of his songs. While most of them are extremely formulaic, fans of the King are sure to have a good time. From the aforementioned Jailhouse Rock to the bright lights of Viva Las Vegas, the films tend to live by the strength of their soundtrack so my advice is to check which songs feature in the film before watching.
Matron "Mama" Morton
John C. Reilly
Release Date (UK)
17th January, 2003
Comedy, Crime, Musical
Best Film, Best Supporting Actress (Zeta-Jones), Best Set Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Sound
Academy Award Nominations
Best Actress (Zellweger), Best Supporting Actor (Reilly), Best Supporting Actress (Latifah), Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Original Song ('I Move On')
© 2022 Benjamin Cox