CHICAGO – DVD review

It’s good to see the Hollywood musical finally rising from the dead, where the genre lay moribund for close to thirty years until the advent of “Moulin Rouge” in 2001. It’s ironic, though, that one of the musicals to bring the genre back to its former glory should be the direct successor to the film that many critics consider the last great movie musical to precede it. “Cabaret” won a slew of Oscars in 1972, and now “Chicago,” created largely by the same two men, John Kander and Bob Fosse, won a slew more awards including Best Picture of 2002. Of course, that the stage version of “Chicago” followed “Cabaret” by only a few years yet it took Hollywood over two decades to get it to the screen says volumes about how studio executives perceive the moviegoing public’s reaction to singing and dancing.

Still and all, “Chicago” rather cheats when it comes to singing and dancing in the same way “Cabaret” did. If you remember, the musical numbers in “Cabaret” were done mostly on a night club stage, where movie audiences of all stripes could feel they were entirely appropriate. Viewers uncomfortable about actors getting up and starting to sing and dance at a moment’s notice didn’t have to worry or feel embarrassed. In “Chicago,” the same sort of thing happens as in “Cabaret.” The singing and dancing this time occur mostly in the mind, the daydreams, of the main character. The filmmakers call them “vaudeville” numbers as opposed to “book” numbers. It’s a neat way of sidestepping the awkwardness many younger viewers, especially, feel about musicals in general.

Does “Chicago” deserve its Oscars for Art Direction, Costume Design, Sound, Editing, Supporting Actress, and Picture? Well, if “Oliver!” could win in 1968, certainly “Chicago” deserves its accolades. Is it among the best musicals ever produced? That’s another question, and one that can only be answered by individual taste. Personally, I don’t think it equals “My Fair Lady,” “Oklahoma,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” “The Music Man,” “The Sound of Music,” or “Cabaret,” but it’s right up there with the best of them. It’s a darn sight more fun to watch than most of what passes for entertainment out of Hollywood, and while I more greatly enjoyed “The Two Towers” from the same year, “Chicago” still placed in my top five.

You have to understand, however, that while “Chicago” is loud and brassy, it is not a traditional musical any more than its older sibling “Cabaret” was traditional. Not only do both movies fudge on the singing and dancing, both movies eschew the genre’s usual lighthearted romance for much gloomier themes. “Chicago” doesn’t quite match Cabaret” for the weightiness of its subject matter, “Cabaret” dealing as it does in racial and social persecution in Nazi Germany, various forms of sexuality, and prostitution. But “Chicago” is a remarkably ominous story, in any case, a dark and sometimes biting satire focusing on sex, infidelity, murder, and retribution. Combine the black-comedy subject matter of “Chicago” with its bizarre but colorful characters, its flashy, jazzy (sometimes too flashy and too jazzy) production values, and its often notable songs and dances, and you get a movie that maybe isn’t an outright screen classic but has enough in it to appeal at least in part to almost everyone.

The movie musical “Chicago” has a long history, starting with a real-life incident and court case in the 1920s that lead to a play and to a silent movie in 1927 involving a woman who killed her boyfriend and wormed her way out of it, followed by a 1942 movie, “Roxie Hart,” then the stage musical “Chicago” in 1975, and finally by the film we have today. If I’ve left anything out, forgive me.

The new film’s plot revolves around a quest for fame at any cost and involves a young married woman, Roxie Hart, of limited musical talent who dreams of becoming a singing star. In pursuing her unrealistic dream, she has an affair with a man who promises to help her career. When she discovers he’s lying to her, she shoots him in a moment of unpremeditated outrage. Now, here’s where the story gets really good. After being arrested, she manages to hire the most flamboyant attorney possible, Billy Flynn, to take her case. He does it reluctantly and on a lark, for the money alone. Then, while in prison awaiting trial, Roxie meets her idol, singer Velma Kelly, also booked for murder, and together they both depend on Billy to spring them. But it’s the conniving Roxy who plays her cards best, throwing herself on the mercy of the public and plotting the most outlandish scheme not only to get free but to make herself famous in the process.

Where does the music come in? All the while this is going on, Roxie daydreams about what might happen to her and what ought to be. Almost all the song-and-dance sequences occur as elements of Roxie’s imagination. The gimmick works and should make no one feel uncomfortable. Unless, that is, you’re troubled by the flashy show of MTV videos, because that’s the way much of the music in “Chicago” comes across. At any rate, among the movie’s key numbers are “Funny Honey,” “When You’re Good to Mamma,” “Cell Block Tango,” “All I Care About,” “I Can’t Do It Alone,” “Mr. Cellophane,” “Razzle Dazzle,” “Nowadays,” “Hot Money Rag,” and, of course, the showstopper that comes inexplicably at the beginning of the story, “And All That Jazz,” a tune so famous it became the title of Bob Fosse’s own biographical movie in 1979.

Most of the film is confined to highly stylized, indoor sets, the action cut and shred into tiny pieces strung together with plenty of pizzazz. For those viewers expecting the film to open up to bigger, broader vistas or ever lighten up its interiors, let me tell you in advance it won’t happen. The film proceeds at an almost dizzying pace under the guidance of first-time big-screen director Rob Marshall. You take it or leave it for what it is. Judging by the film’s box office and awards, a lot of people took it. I found it occasionally over-the-top but terrific fun.

The thing is, the filmmakers of “Chicago” decided not only upon a splashy, ostentatious tone, they also decided against using seasoned singers and dancers for the major roles, opting instead to use accomplished actors. What’s more, for the most part they decided to let the actors use their own singing voices; there are no Marni Nixon dubs here. Whether you agree that the roles are well cast is another story. Renee Zellweger plays the lead, Roxie Hart. She’s a skilled performer and carries off the innocent-like-a-fox personality of Hart nicely. Her voice is not the strongest, though, and her dancing, like that of the other major characters, is almost nonexistent, made up on screen of bits and pieces of a multitude of quick cuts (the two-second rule applies). The film didn’t win an Oscar for editing for nothing.

Richard Gere plays her fast-talking lawyer, Billy Flynn, the most successful and the most unscrupulous lawyer in the state of Illinois. John Travolta was first considered for the part, but he turned it down, apparently unwilling to take a chance on doing another musical at a time when the genre was thought to be down and out. In any case, Gere is fine, slick and handsome, although he has nowhere near the musical talent of Travolta. I was disappointed that Gere’s voice did not project very well in the music and that the audio engineers did nothing to augment his vocal numbers.

Catherine Zeta-Jones plays Roxie’s rival, the sexy, haughty, big-time singing star Velma Kelly. She fares better, especially musically, than the other two actors, perhaps because her role is bigger than life and she’s allowed to exaggerate things more. Ms. Zeta-Jones winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in the part is open to debate. She’s colorful, to be sure.

Perhaps the two most outstanding performances in the movie, however, are contributed by members of the supporting cast, Queen Latifah and John C. Reilly. Latifah plays “Mama” Morton, the corrupt but bighearted prison matron who eventually becomes Roxie’s ally. It’s a part that could easily have turned into mere stereotype, but Latifah imbues it with a vitality and warmth that are hard to resist. Reilly plays Amos Hart, Roxie’s cuckold husband, as a lovable sap. Flynn keeps calling him “Andy,” a reference to the comedy show of “Amos and Andy.” Reilly has probably the weakest singing voice of the lot, yet he’s able to carry off his one big musical number, “Mr. Cellophane,” on the strength of his personality alone. Both actors are worth watching, as is the film.

“Chicago” may not clearly match the best representatives of the movie musical genre’s glory years, but it’s a worthy step in the right direction.

The screen presentation measures an anamorphic ratio approximately 1.74:1 across a normal television, so it’s not really an ultrawide image. Nor is the bit rate particularly high, indicating a fair amount of compression. The result is a picture that is a little soft and warm with almost unnoticeable, smoothly minute grain, much as I remember seeing the movie in a motion picture theater. Facial tones are usually good, natural and realistic appearing. Ultimate delineation is not always well represented through the dark, the glitz, the smoke, and the glitter of the director’s original intentions, however, meaning that dimmest areas of the screen are not always too revealing of inner detail. There are also minor halo effects and a few fluttering lines, but it’s nothing serious. Considering that most of the story takes place indoors under severely distorted lighting, the results look pretty much, I’m sure, like what were meant to be.

Audio options in English are Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 Surround, and in French, DD 5.1. In the Dolby Digital mode there is an appropriate musical ambiance conveyed to the rear speakers, plus a few other limited surround effects like audience applause, cell doors clanging, and such. Front-channel stereo spread is excellent, the tonal balance slightly favoring the upper frequencies but not bad; the dynamics are strong; and the overall response is a tiny bit harsh in the manner of typical movie sonics. Still and all, the sound is appropriate to the story and much as I remember it from the theater.

Given the importance of this title as a recent Academy Award winner, the disc hasn’t got much that’s extra-special in the way of bonus materials to accompany it. The main things are an audio commentary with director Marshall and screenwriter Bill Condon, plus a twenty-eight minute, behind-the-scenes featurette, mostly a promotional. Then, there’s a deleted musical number, “Class,” performed by Catherine Zeta-Jones and Queen Latifah that can be played with or without director commentary, and there are twenty scene selections. Surprisingly, Buena Vista actually supply a keep-case insert this time around with a chapter index; this may prove to be a trend. English and French are provided for spoken languages, with Spanish subtitles and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Thoughts:
I couldn’t help thinking as I watched “Chicago” how much like its forerunner, “Cabaret,” it was, and never quite to the advantage of the newer production. I’ve already mentioned that the themes of the older work strike one as of more consequence than the comparatively lightweight murder trial, rags, and riches plot of the later work. Then, there’s Renee Zellweger, who delivers a good, ditzy sort of performance, but no match for the star turn of Liza Minnelli; and there’s no one in “Chicago” comparable to the thespian talents of Joel Grey or Michael York. The songs and dances in “Chicago” are quite good, too, and reminiscent of the earlier ones, yet they’re not so memorable or so telling. Nor does “Chicago” open up cinematically as “Cabaret” does, seeming, rather, content to remain confined to its stage-bound origins. None of which is to suggest that “Chicago” is a not a good movie musical, simply not a great one.

Insofar as musicals go, “Chicago” is not your bouncy, breezy “Sound of Music” or even “Moulin Rouge.” In fact, its satiric tone, like its settings, is so dark and unrelenting it may turn a few orthodox musical-comedy fans away. Yet at the same time, it is probably the film’s unusual twist on murder and sex scandals that won it so many new converts. Certainly, one cannot fault the cast for giving it their all, their enthusiasm far outstripping their musical aptitudes.

“Chicago” may or may not be a movie for the ages, only time will tell, but its theme of instant celebrity is topical and its music and acting are entertaining for the nonce. The movie may even usher in a whole new generation of screen musicals. If it does, it will have served its purpose well.