Chicago (VHS, 2003)

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Catherine Zeta-Jones, Rene Zellweger, and Richard Gere put the Razzle Dazzle in Chicago

Dec 30, 2002 (Updated Feb 27, 2003)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Great cast, great musical

Cons:The director's cinematic inexperience sometimes shows

The Bottom Line: A great musical well presented by a talented cast of performers


Recent movie musicals have felt more like stunts than like fully integrated projects. With Moulin Rouge, one could almost sense director Baz Luhrman standing on the side giggling, "Do you think the audience would go with me if I set a tango to a Police song? Tee-hee." With Everyone Says I Love You, one could almost sense director Woody Allen standing to the side muttering neurotically, "Do you think the audience would go with me if I let Julia Roberts pretend to sing?" And with Evita, one could almost sense director Alan Parker standing to the side talking to an accountant saying, "Do you think if I make this really gorgeous, the audience will ignore the fact that our lead can't hit any of the notes?"

Those three films were exercises in postmodern glee, classical nostalgia, and audience abuse.

Rob Marshall's Chicago is a Musical. Though it integrates the show's inherent theatricality into the plot, it does it without a wink or a nudge. And though it features stars, it seems likely that they were actually expected to be able to sing coming in. And though the photography is frequently beautiful and flashy, it accentuates the themes of the musical, rather than trying to distract the audience from any failings of the cast. Simply put, Chicago is the most successful screen musical in years and years. That hardly makes it perfect, but it does what it sets out to do. The audience walks away feeling like they've both seen a superior theatre production and a well-mounted movie. At the screening I was at, the audience applauded at the end of each musical number and for the names of all of the important cast members. While this LA trait continues to irk me, this was one of those rare occasions that I nearly joined in in clapping for the light projected on the screen.

There have been talks about filming Chicago since the musical, by John Kander (tunes) and Fred Ebb (lyrics/book), was first staged in 1975, but it took nearly 30 years for them to get the project on screen. Part of the problem was that musicals just weren't succeeding at the box office like they were in the 1950s and 1960s. But a bigger part of the problem was that Chicago was seen as a director's triumph and nobody could conceive of how to translate Bob Fosse's interpretation onto the screen and things ground to a halt for years. Anne Reinking's wildly successful 1996 revival helped restart Chicago's momentum and names thrown about for casting including Goldie Hawn and (heaven help us) Madonna and various high profile directors were mentioned as well. In the end, the cast isn't exactly what I might have pictured and the director had never made a feature, but things work surprisingly well.

The story focuses on Roxie Hart (Rene Zellweger) a wannabe nightclub singer in Jazz Era Chicago. After discovering that her man-on-the-side lied to her about showbiz connections to get her in the sack, Roxie shoots him cold and tries to get her sad-sack husband Amos (John C. Reilly) to take responsibility. But she gets packed off to a women's prison overseen by Mama Morton (Dana Elaine Owens, more commonly known as Queen Latifah). There she meets Velma Kelly a singer famed for her nightclub act and a double homicide. But killing her husband and sister has made Velma famous and she's capitalizing with the help of the opportunistic Mama Morton and her money hungry lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere).

Flynn, a lawyer who never loses, takes an interest in Roxie and makes her into a celebrity as well. But fame and justice in Chicago are both fickle and Flynn is the only man who knows how to navigate the waters, but will Roxie be passed over when the next Jazz killer pops up?

Fosse directed Chicago as a single set show with a steel cage styled set. All very contained. Marshall's challenge was finding a way to expand the story outside of the prison walls and into the smokey world of the jazz clubs without skipping a beat. He does this by filtering the musical numbers through Roxie's Jazz and Gin soaked consciousness. Thus, it isn't like women in prison are just bursting into song at inopportune moments. They're just women telling their stories in quiet prison moments, stories that Roxie can only understand through a veil of performativity. The musical numbers mostly don't take place on the dingy sets that make up Roxie's reality, but as Marshall tells the story it all makes sense.

The stars do their own singing and the stars do their own dancing and so the immediate question when evaluating the movie is, "How'd they all do?"

Zellweger is the least musically experienced member of the cast and relatively speaking, it shows. She still has a superior voice to Nicole Kidman's and she just throws herself so totally into the part that you can easily forget that she's reaching for most of the high notes (the kinds of notes that Luhrman elided from Moulin Rouge to protect Kidman). Her dancing is spirited and proficient (if unexceptional). But around her musical averageness, is a wonderful acting performance. Zellweger always surprises me when she acts because her work always starts at a surface level, with that whispery voice, but she never fails to go deeper. She's held her own with Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Tom Cruise, and others in recent years and while I began believing that her work in Jerry Maguire was the result of a great writer-director, I've become increasingly convinced that she's just a really smart actress. She captures Roxie's lust for fame, but is able to show fear when that's required.

Miramax is, quite wisely, packaging Zellweger as the Best Actress candidate and Catherine Zeta-Jones as Supporting Actress. Hopefully that will let Zeta-Jones get the recognition she deserves. With good new actors there's always the tendency to observe that the camera likes them. Or loves them. But I can't think of an actress in my lifetime who the camera loves quite as much as Catherine Zeta-Jones. It's not just that she's beautiful, because soap operas are full of beautiful women who will never ever become movie stars. There's something in her beauty that just spells out cinematic vitality. Is she a great actress? You certainly wouldn't know from dreck like Entrapment or mediocrities like America's Sweethearts or Mask of Zorro, but on screen, she has a come-on appeal that can't be topped. Her Velma Kelly has animal energy and Zeta-Jones's singing voice is a lusty growl. While she doesn't have a dancer's physique, like Zellweger she pours everything she's got into the part. I have been saying for months that Zeta-Jones's T-Mobile commercials represented the stupidest decision made by an A-list actress in decades, but her work her actually made me willing to forgive her.

Gere is where things get a bit stickier. For the actor, this performance is a revelation. Richard Gere always seems to be in a state of Zen meditation onscreen, but here, he lets everything hang out. He smiles widely, fast-talks, and moves decently. His voice is slightly high and slightly thin and for the majority of the film, Marshall seems to be shooting him from the waist up, preventing exposure of his dancing ability. When he finally gets to tap dance, though, it's a very good moment. I can't help but feel, though, that the part could have been played better by half a dozen actors with more recent musical theatre experience including John Travolta, Kevin Spacey, and Hugh Jackman (I raise those names because all were bandied about at various points). I should note that I saw Chicago five years back in a touring production that starred Alan Thicke in this part. Richard Gere is better than Alan Thicke.

Queen Latifah probably has the strongest voice of any of the singing cast members and she shows it off well in her song "When You're Good To Mama." And John C. Reilly does wonders with the Brechtian staging of "Mr. Cellophane." I don't know his singing background, but he's got a nice voice.

The long and short of it is that if you were casting a Broadway revival of this musical, you'd look to slightly better singers and dancers. But if you're makin' a movie, you need movie stars and these folks are all good enough that you don't worry.

Interestingly, the best musical theatre stars in the cast are mostly on the side. Christina Baranski gets to belt only a verse as sympathetic reporter Mary Sunshine. And Taye Diggs, as the bandleader, keeps hinting like he's gonna sing and he keeps disappointing by using his silky voice only to announce other performers. And Canadian theatre legend Colm Feore does well as the politically ambitious Harrison, but those of us who have seen him on stage know he can do more. And Chita Rivera, who originated the role of Velma on Broadway, makes a brief cameo that seems designed only for fans of the show to go, "Ah, Chita..." And that was my response, I guess.

Director Marshall is a choreographer/television director best known for his recent TV version of Annie. He does a nice job here, though I feel more inclined to praise his conceptual interpretations than the technical executions. With Gods and Monsters (and Candyman 2) screenwriter Bill Condon, Marshall makes the film's transitions in and out of musical numbers seamless. Within the numbers themselves, Marshall sometimes feels like he's chopping things to bits merely for the sake of challenging his editor (Martin Walsh). And the editor sometimes seems baffled by the task. In certain numbers Marshall is left with a jumble of body parts that feels very distanced from an actual showcase for the performers. It frequently looks as if Marshall is trying to disguise the failings of his actors and if that's the case, he's done his job. But otherwise, it's a distraction. For an example of how to edit a similar musical challenge, he needed to look no further than Bob Fosse's Oscar-winning direction of Cabaret. Can't praise that highly enough. Here, Marshall can only achieve lightweight Fosse in both his choreography and direction. That's not really an insult. It's just a fact.

Leading to the belief that, physical-type aside, she was the cast's best dancer, Zeta-Jones stars in several of the film's least butchered numbers. "I Can't Do It Alone" features Velma trying to convince Roxie to replace her dead sister in the family act. Velma has to do both parts, which Zeta-Jones does with aplomb. This song features the film's rarest occurrence — a full-body shot. Velma's much more chopped up in the film's opening, the catchy "All that Jazz," but Zeta-Jones makes such a fantastic entrance that I forgive the fact that I never got a sense of the routine as a unified whole (something Fosse required and emphasized). It's also tough not to love the raunchy staging of "Cell Block Tango," in which six women (including Velma) reenact their murdering the men who done them wrong all the while declaring that, "He had it coming/ He only had himself to blame."

Whenever Billy Flynn appears onscreen, a circus seems to follow. The circus inspired "Razzle Dazzle" lets Gere juggle, while the film's best number "We Both Reached For The Gun" shows Flynn as a puppet master, controlling both the media and Roxy.

Chicago has some sortta message about the media and justice system as entertainment, but that's mostly superficial, as are the sets. Dion Beebe, the film's cinematographer, gets some nice stylized images out of filters and the stage craft of the film.

Chicago is rated PG-13, and parents should take that rating to heart. Somebody probably went to the MPAA to ask how many "sh*ts" they could get away with on the language side. And since musicals have always been a forum for Hollywood to circumvent censorship, its no surprise that there's an awful lotta sex bein' implied and discussed here.

If you like the musical, you'll probably be happy with the film. The best songs, like "All That Jazz" and "Razzle Dazzle" remain intact and nicely interpreted. For all the sexy talk, much of the raw eroticism of Fosse's staging is missing here, though the stars compensate.

And here's another time that I'm totally happy with the 4-star rating. Marshall's inexperience behind the camera produces most of the negatives here, but his creativity and handling of the wonderful cast provides most of the positives.


Recommend this product? Yes

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