Chicago (VHS, 2003)

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CHICAGO: Berliners Mitt Uns? No, Just MTV Babies.

Jan 6, 2003 (Updated Jan 16, 2003)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Music, performances, and certain stagings, despite handicaps imposed by the Director and the Editor.

Cons:Framing, cutting, camera angles, and a frenetic pacing which prevents us from savoring CHICAGO's virtues.

The Bottom Line: The vision of Bob Fosse is lost in a mishmash of styles, devices and approaches. CHICAGO is neither as entertaining nor as significant as it might have been.

It's Showtime, folks:

Can you see it, people?

A Big City, at the end of a Turmoil-Building Economic Decade! A city full of poverty and incredible wealth. A city by the water, rife with crooked politicians, venal lawyers, God-fired Puritans, and gangs fighting in the streets. A city where good girls, rich girls, poor girls and bad girls dance in their respective venues, but get taken by bums -- and become sensational news when they lash back in revenge. A Catholic city, full of modest cathedrals to the new gods of capitalism; scattered with statues of those who built them, looking back on their primitive beginnings. A city graced by a World-class museum, musical and theatrical groups, and an influential University. A city of high culture but incredible degradation, where the straight and the gay, the damned and the saved, the rich and the poor, mix without quite acknowledging each other. A city where a gang of ruthless thugs are seizing power and spreading their New Order throughout the Nation, and the World beyond. A City which cries out for a Brechtian interpreter!

"A-ha! Berlin, in 1931," you say.


"Oh! You saw GANGS OF NEW YORK!"

Haven't seen it yet.

"I get it, Nixon's Washington, D.C., in 1968."

What? No, no, no! This is going to be a satirical farce, for God's sake! This isn't THE TRIALS OF HENRY KISSINGER!

"A-a-a . . . Washington, 2000, then . . . . "

Get it through your head. I've already reviewed JOURNEYS WITH GEORGE!

"What, then?"

CHICAGO, in 1927, you gargling, left-footed goatboy! Directed by first time movie director, Rob Marshall. Based on Cabaret-Bob Fosse's 1975 stage production, and Ann Reinking's revue version of 1996; presented as a semi-All singing, All dancing, 12 Girls 12, quasi-MTV music video: the down and dirty about American life as "Joyous Fun!!" Starring Renee Zellweger (as murderess Roxie Hart), Richard Gere (as ebullient criminal lawyer Billy Flynn), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Double-murderess Velma Kelly), Queen Latifah (Lesbian Jail Matron Momma Morton), Taye Diggs (Cabaret-like MC Bandleader) John C. Riley (forgotten husband Amos Hart), Christine Baranski (Reporter Mary Sunshine, originally done in drag), Lucy Liu (Socialite murderess Kitty "Go to Hell" Baxter), and Chita Rivera (the first Velma, in a few seconds of cameo as The Judge).

When 28 year-old Maurine Dallas Watkins, a Kentucky preacher's daughter and Radcliffe grad, gave up her position on the Chicago Tribune in 1924 and returned to Professor Baker's famous 47 Workshop in Playwrighting, the result was her successful Broadway melodrama, Chicago, redolent of more than a whiff of corruption. In addition to inspiring Hecht/MacArthur's The Front Page, a forgotten movie was adapted from Chicago in 1927, starring Phyllis Haver as jazz-dancing, wild-loving, hard-drinking Roxie Hart, in which Lawyer Billy Flynn was but a minor character; however, Roxie got her time steps down in William Wellman's hybrid satire (with musical numbers), ROXIE HART, for Ginger Rodgers played the title role, and Adolph Menjou strolled into the foreground as a memorable Billy Flynn. In circumstances not entirely clear, Maurine Watkins, who had become a steady but minor Hollywood screenwriter, refused to allow the play to be revived in the latter part of her life. (She gained the reputation of an eccentric for going heavily veiled in public, but after her death in 1969, it was revealed she died from complications of facial cancer, which she fought for 15 years.) Bob Fosse finally procured the rights for Chicago; wrote and directed a musical with composers Fred Ebb and John Kander, who had done the book and music for the Tony-winning Cabaret.

[Fosse's CABARET (1973), which won eight Oscars, is considered by many critics the last great movie musical, the only one that has successfully and entertainingly combined words, music and dance with the incipient imperial world of Vietnam America and after.]

Fosse's 1976 Broadway musical Chicago moved Roxie (Gwen Verdon) into a murderous rivalry with Velma Kelly (Chita Rivera), but the adaptation was overshadowed in the Tony's race by the sentimentally ego-needy Chorus Line. Fosse never gave up on Chicago, however, and at his death in 1983, he was preparing a movie which would have combined Roxie's story with the life of dominant Broadway columnist Walter Winchell. Ann Reinking, Fosse lead dancer and companion latterly, choreographed a much more successful Broadway revue production, in 1996.

Hence, now, CHICAGO the Movie!

Re-written again by Bill Condon (GODS AND MONSTERS, 1998), this production by Rob Marshall, a Pittsburgh stage director/choreographer of some TV experience (choreographer for Cinderella, 1997 and Annie, 1999), shows the marks of all of the above, plus a misguided MTV editing technique and a touch of haphazard juvenile MOULIN ROUGE absurdity.

The basic story, as it has evolved, remains a strong and lurid one. Young Roxie, a Chicago housewife and aspiring dancer, is enticed into Roaring Twenties nightclubs by her paramour, Fred Casely (Dominic West). One evening, following headliner Velma Kelly's rendition of "All that Jazz," star-struck Roxie witnesses her idol being taken into custody. Velma Kelly, the Toast of Chicago, is accused of murdering her husband and sister (her partner in a show biz act), in an eruption of jealousy, after finding them in adultery. Later, after Fred perfunctorily planks Roxie and prepares to leave her flat (in more ways than one), Roxie pleads with him to show some affection, and he beats her around for it. She shoots him in a swift but lamentable flash of realization, and persuades her cuckolded husband Amos to take the rap. Assistant D.A. Harrison (Colm Feore) easily cuts through the alibi, and Roxie is soon at Cook County Jail, in a cell block of women, including Velma Kelly, accused with murdering their husbands or lovers. (From the arrest in 1927 of Queens housewife Ruth Snyder for killing her husband, with the help of a lover, such cases were a Media goldmine of sensationalism.) Roxie and Velma are thrown together by Matron Mama Brown, a proudly corrupt but kindly tyrant with a Lesbian eye, and a quick hand for a bribe. The word is "When You're Good to Mama -- Mama Will Be Kind to You."

Meanwhile, Amos Hart, still loyal to his philandering Roxie, scrapes up a downpayment on the fee of criminal attorney genius, Billy Flynn, who is already representing Velma. As Billy notes: "If Jesus had lived in Chicago, and he'd had $5,000, and had come to see me -- things would have turned out differently."

[In the 1920's, every major city had a Billy Flynn, criminal lawyer extraordinaire. Legendary (and often notorious) were Bill Fallon of New York City, Earl Rodgers of Chicago and Jake Erlich of San Francisco.]

Observing Velma Kelly close-up, Roxie begins to see how an exercise in PR can make her, too, really famous -- a Star! And so, in her first press conference, Roxie ignores Billy's prudent advice to keep her mouth shut and implicates herself further. From then on, as illustrated in numbers like "We Both Reached for the Gun" (a cleverly staged and edited ventriloquist-turn for Gere and Zelweger) or "The Old Razzle Dazzle," we see how Flynn attempts to regain control of his client. But she does become a "star," both impressing and infuriating Velma.

Then, briefly, Lucy Liu makes an appearance as an early day trophy wife, Kitty "Go to Hell" Baxter, who returns one Chicago night to the marital bower to roust Mr. Baxter, in bed with two babes. "Are you going to believe what you see?" he cries, "or what I say?"

Kitty let's her revolver do the speaking for her.

And she becomes the new "star."

Then, we are treated to a dozen or so accused murderesses, more or less, telling their tales of infidelity and homicide in "The Cellblock Tango."

These are very American stories, told in a very American movie musical.


Going to trial now, folks!

The music, the performances, the tried but nearly true story, and the lighting are all satisfactory. The trouble is that the overall scenario and score are never presented as cohesively and sharply as they should be. For instance, the choice has been made to begin the film rather straight forwardly. Fine. Then the action retreats inside the head of Roxie. Fine, again. Interrupting her fantasies, however, from time to time, the striking rapper, Taye Diggs, turns up in blue light to comment on the action; and the film's point of view and continuity are lost. As "The Band Leader," Diggs should be the counterpart of the MC in CABARET, but in CHICAGO, he has little memorable to say about the action, no welcoming musical number, no real connection to the action. And late in CHICAGO (I ask forgiveness for a spoiler here; the development seems such an afterthought), it turns out the story may have been Roxie's diary, as re-written by Lawyer Flynn.

The numbers I have mentioned are good, but they are constantly broken up by chunks of the story, and vice verse. This fragmentation ruins John C. Riley's well set-up "Mr. Cellophane," a lament of the forgotten Amos Hart, "the little man who wasn't there" in the heart of his wife. Thus, Riley's attempt to duplicate the poignancy of Joel Grey's rendering of the song in Reinking's 1996 stage revival is ruined. [Of course, Grey also was a triumph as the MC in the original Cabaret, both stage and movie versions.]

Renee Zellweger, in my opinion, should have been shown a red-head, like the original Roxie Hart. Then, when she makes herself over as a premature but telling Marilyn Monroe-marceled-bleach-blonde, the contrast would have been much more dramatically effective. Zellweger, with emotions squeezed from her face through her eyes, is a constant revelation as an actress. She manages to carry CHICAGO, as she must in this scenario, but her singing and dancing are burdened by camera placement, angles or editing which literally cut her (and the other performers) off at the knees, sometimes the toes, often in the same sequence.

Catherine Zeta-Jones, the only artist of the three principals trained in musical theater, is equally handicapped. Tall, long-legged, her large eyes and fine-boned face framed by a Louise Brook's bob, she is a natural performer, expressive, strong of voice, and a fine dancer. But even her best numbers, such as "All that Jazz" and her finale with Zellweiger (a new "sister act," dressed in white, with tommy guns to match), are sabotaged by technical ineptitude -- once again under the influence of circus editing.

As has been widely pointed out, Richard Gere is more relaxed and clearly enjoying himself in CHICAGO than he has been for years, and he has fun with Billy Flynn, the aging but shrewd lothario mouthpiece. If his singing and dancing do not match that of his two co-stars, he too can take some excuse in the constant cutting away, poor framing and inconsequential montage that lace his numbers.

What almost buries CHICAGO is the framing of these musical numbers. First we see their feet, then we don't, then we do. It is as if Director Marshall were saying, "Bring in the focus, no pull it back." Or in the editing, he might be ordering, "Let's arbitrarily cut to that chorus girl performing a fly on the wire."

Several production pieces which might "have brought down the house" are thus simply entertaining. Even in the stylized laisez-faire of musical comedy, the pacing, at about two hours, is so frenetic that relationships are never meaningfully established. We are seldom able to pause and savor what we are experiencing.


So many opportunities missed . . . .

Queen Latifah, splendid in her Diva glory, should have been directed as a much tougher, grittier character, something she could have handled easily; and she should have had at least one other number from several which are Mama Morton's in the stage play. The sleek Lucy Liu, also, could well have had a mordant ballad to herself, giving an insight into the Americanization of an Asian woman. For that matter, the Ladies of the Cellblock, each a distinctly defined character, merited at least a group reprise.

So many missed opportunities.


It may be true, as Billy Flynn suggests: "Give them an Act with lots of flash/ And the reaction will be passionate." But in this CHICAGO, there is too much "flash" and not enough sustained passionate connection.

I suspect that some viewers, who are familiar with the stage version, will be either intrigued by the additions and ommissions, or put off by them. Among those who have not seen Chicago on the stage, younger viewers will want to know, "Shouldn't Elton John be in here somewhere"; and older fans of classic Hollywood musicals will regret the loss of continuity in the musical numbers, while lovers of Bob Fosse's work will miss the contextual bite of his CABARET-like scenario -- as applied to Chicago, a city in America similar to Berlin in the period.

Impossible to know, of course, but it is interesting to speculate how relevant and entertaining Bob Fosse would have made a comparison of Chicago in the 1920's with the United States going to war now in our new century; just as he made a pertinent comparison with CABARET between Berlin in the late 1920's and America's first real flirtation with fascism during the Vietnam War.

For its score, and the efforts of a willing cast, I recommend CHICAGO -- but barely.

But who can say? Perhaps, in twenty years, CHICAGO will inspire a different musical, mixing its entertaining cynicism with the inescapable and unifying commercial logic of The Producers. Characters based on O.J. and Bobbie Blake (should he be found innocent) will play Roxie and Velma in drag, prosecuted by a totalitarian American state.


Hey, CHICAGO could use a little of that -- let's think outside the box here, people!

"Until next time, America," as that hack says, on Television every day.






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