We had it comin'! We had it comin'!
It was about time that a musical made its way to Blu-ray. One of the great pleasures of the new HD medium has been the uncompressed audio that spreads across six channels so that it blankets a room with sound. And "Chicago" is a good way to start. Maybe another eye-popper like "Moulin Rouge!" will be next.
I'm one of those who's convinced that Baz Luhrmann's mildly lurid Oscar-nominated musical helped pave the way for "Chicago" to win Best Picture. Not that it was a make-up call, mind you. "A Beautiful Mind" deserved to win the year that "Moulin Rouge!" was the dark horse, but that quirky musical served notice that the musical was back and brand-spanking new. It revived interest in the genre to the point where "Chicago" had so much buzz by the time it was released that we were all more than ready to have our spines tingled by the familiar Kander and Ebb song "And All That Jazz" in the film's opening sequence. But we weren't prepared for how good Catherine Zeta-Jones was as a singer and dancer, or co-stars Renee Zellweger, Richard Gere, and John C. Reilly. We knew what Queen Latifah could do, but the actors known to us for their comedic/dramatic roles really did a fantastic job doing all their own singing and dancing.
"Chicago" was nominated for 13 Academy Awards and pulled down six of them: Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Zeta-Jones), Best Art/Set Direction (John Myhre, Gordon Sim), Best Costume Design (Colleen Atwood), Best Editing (Martin Walsh), Best Sound (Michael Minkler, Dominick Tavella, David Lee) and, of course, the big prize for films made in 2002, Best Picture. And if it bears some resemblance to another Academy Award-winner, "Cabaret" (1972), it's because the legendary Bob Fosse had a big hand in both films.
Now "Chicago" is on Blu-ray and sounding better than ever. Looks? Well, that's a slightly different story. If you're the kind of HD fan who loves the hyper-clarity of the new medium, "Chicago" will strike you as surprisingly uneven. Some scenes (like the "He had it comin'" song, a.k.a. "Cell Block Tango," or one that has Gere in a restaurant surrounded by women) are as sharp and detailed as any Blu-ray picture you'll see. Other scenes, though--particularly the smoke-filled speakeasy scenes--are grainy. Either it's a flaw in the source master, or a deliberate choice. Though director Rob Marshall doesn't address the issue in his commentary, my guess is that it was a deliberate choice to evoke the smoky atmosphere conveyed by the stage play (book by Fosse and Fred Ebb).
"Chicago" is certainly evocative of the Roaring Twenties, but it's also the equivalent of a theatrical power drink. It's a non-stop energy rush that inventively takes the musical to a new level. Rather than stop the narrative and have characters sing songs during those pauses, "Chicago" weaves the narrative with a cabaret-style series of songs performed by the actors, all of it funneled through the imaginative mind of would-be star Roxie Hart (Zellweger). As she watches half of the famous vaudeville sister act, Velma Kelly (Zeta-Jones) perform the opening number, we see her fantasize that she's the one onstage belting out the song. That continues throughout the film, as Zellweger sees most everything in terms of the stage. It's all skillfully and amazingly handled, with some of the transitions between the stage and narrative action so fluid that it actually helps move the picture along, rather than serving as an interruptive. And you know you're in for a special ride when the choreography of that opening number has a parallel in the narrative. As Velma is being manhandled during a dance, Roxie is being roughly made love to in her apartment nearby, duped by a furniture salesman who promised to use his connections to make her a star.
And so, early in the film, we learn that Velma killed her sister for getting it on with her husband, and we watch Roxie pull the trigger in anger after the furniture salesman uses her and roughs her up. Milquetoast husband Amos (John C. Reilly) tries to cover for her until he learns it's the salesman who sold furniture to his wife, and not an intruder as she had told him. So it's off to prison for Roxie, who's held on death row (okay, don't ask about the legal logistics here) while awaiting her trial. There she meets prison matron Mama Morton (Latifah), who offers to do what she's already done for Velma: make a phone call to the best lawyer in the Windy City to get her off the hook . . . for a price.
It's all about that fifteen minutes of fame that Andy Warhol promised all of us, and how short that fifteen minutes can seem. As we watch Velma and Roxie vie for the full attentions of attorney Billy Flynn (Gere), production numbers keep flowing from Roxie's overactive mind. Latifah really sells it when she sings "When You're Good to Mama," a song that's reminiscent of the carnival come-ons that try to woo customers into the tent. But some of the most memorable songs you won't even remember by name or by singable phrases. Numbers like "We Both Reached for the Gun" are positively vaudevillian. As Billy and Roxie appear before the press and Billy tries to speak for her so that she doesn't say anything incriminating, we see a parallel song in which Zellweger sits on Gere's lap like a ventriloquist's dummy, and Gere sings in a kind of W. C. Fields/vaudevillian voice while putting words in her mouth. Gere also does a great job on "Razzle Dazzle," during which he shares the secret of his courtroom success. But Zellweger is surprisingly good too, especially on a song called "Roxie." And Reilly might have the most poignant song of all with "Mr. Cellophane," which he sings with the weight of every nice guy who's ever been ignored or mistreated by a woman. As with any musical, some songs just aren't as memorable or successful, but overall, "Chicago" really nails it.
The 1080p Hi-Def picture (1.85:1 aspect ratio, which fills out a 16x9 screen) is, as I said before, inconsistent. Some scenes are slightly grainy, others are quite grainy, and still others are as bright and sharp and pristine as the best Blu-ray releases. I suspect it's directorial vision that's responsible and not a flawed or inconsistent source master. You can see in some of the later close-ups outside the cabaret atmosphere that there's a high level of detail and strong black levels. Color saturation, as with sharpness, seems to vary with the scene. Overall, though, I'd have to say that the picture is slightly improved over the "Razzle-Dazzle" edition.
But there's nothing like uncompressed audio to make a vibrant musical come to life in your TV room. The 5.1 Dolby Digital (48kHz, 24-bit) audio is rich on the bass, which is good because percussion and low-end piano notes drive much of the music. There isn't as much rear-speaker action as I would have thought in some scenes, but for the most part the six-track soundtrack fills the room nicely. Additional options are standard English and French 5.1 and Spanish 2.0 uncompressed audio--the latter an unusual option. Subtitles are in English SDH, French, and Spanish.
Because the film is relatively short at 113 minutes, there are a number of extras from previous releases that are included. The anchor is the commentary by Rob Marshall and screenwriter Bill Condon, which covers all the usual bases. There's also a short "behind the scenes" bonus feature that shows the cast and crew in production, and a more structured feature on "From Stage to Screen: The History of 'Chicago'." The latter, a carry-over from the Special Edition, is quite good. One deleted scene playable with or without commentary shows Zeta-Jones and Latifah performing "Class," which was cut because it didn't come from Roxie's point of view, and a number of extended musical performances from the Special Edition. Minelli, who starred in "Cabaret," also makes an appearance here via an extra detailing how she stepped in for Gwen Verdon in 1975 on Broadway. There are some interesting clips here, including an appearance by Minelli and actress Chita Rivera on the old "Dinah Shore Show." Rounding out the extras are the "Movie Showcase" best-Blu-ray clip feature (which strikes me as worthless) and three really slight profile-features on the director, production designer Myhre, and costume designer Atwood.
That "Chicago" sustains its energy and momentum and cleverly continues to weave together a realistic narrative with staged theatrical interpretations is a tribute not only to the original Broadway writers, but to screenwriter Bill Condon and director Rob Marshall. High-energy, clever, and brilliantly performed, it's a film that's certainly deserving of that Best Picture honor.