out of Five
Running time: 113
Exhilarating musical that doesn’t put a foot wrong – expect this to follow its clutch of Golden Globe nominations with an Oscar nod or two come February…
Chicago’s journey to the big screen has been an astonishing 76 years in the making. Well, sort of. It began life as a play in 1926 and was turned into a sub-par Ginger Rogers vehicle (Roxie Hart) in 1942, before John Kander and Fred Ebb (Cabaret) turned it into a Broadway musical in 1975, directed by the legendary Bob Fosse.
Best Musical Since Cabaret
In recent years, as anyone familiar with underground posters will know, it has become something of a West End staple, attracting ever-decreasing standards of light entertainers, to the point where it is currently starring ‘Beppe from EastEnders’.
However, fans of the stage show will not be disappointed by the film, as stage musical director/choreographer Rob Marshall has pulled out all the stops and delivered the best screen musical since Cabaret.
The plot, as is the case with most musicals, is extremely simple. In 1920s Chicago, showgirl Velma Kelly (an electrifying Catherine Zeta-Jones) is sent to prison for murder and quickly becomes a celebrity, thanks, in no small part, to the razzle-dazzle of her celebrity lawyer, Billy Flynn (Richard Gere). Hot on her heels, however, is Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger), jailed for the murder of her lover and quick to sniff out her own celebrity opportunity…
Award Nominations A Go Go
The performances are excellent and have already earned Golden Globe
nominations for each of its three leads, as well as supporting players John C. Reilly (superb as Roxie’s dim-witted husband – his ‘Mr Cellophane’ number is a definite highlight) and Queen Latifah as Mama Morton (the –ahem- ‘Gaby Roslin’ role).
Catherine Zeta-Jones’ theatrical background has often been mentioned, but she really gets a chance to shine here and seizes it with both hands, belting out the wonderful opening number with everything she has. As far as Hollywood is concerned, she may have gone into this as Mrs Michael Douglas or ‘that bird out of Zorro’, but she’ll be coming back a star.
However, it’s Renee Zellweger that’s the real discovery here. For one thing, she has an unexpectedly terrific singing voice. In addition, she manages to make you care about a largely unsympathetic character – only gradually do you realise that her oddly puffed-up face masks her character’s vulnerability. At this point, she is more or less a cert for an Oscar nomination.
If Only Gere Could Sing
In fact, it’s only really Richard Gere that lets the side down. He’s
superbly cast in the speaking sections of the film, but he looks deeply
uncomfortable in his opening number and his singing voice leaves something to be desired.
However, he improves as the film progresses and his performance by no means spoils the film. (The press have made much of Gere’s “early beginnings in stage musicals”, allowing for the impression that the stage was his first love. However, this illusion has recently been shattered by a recent edition of ‘Before They Were Famous’, which showed Gere on embarrassing crotch-grabbing form as Danny in Grease).
As for the musical numbers themselves, they are staged, Dennis Potter-style, as delusions of Roxie’s and brilliantly inter-cut with the action. (Although, having said that, it would have been wonderful to have seen Gere actually tap-dance through his superb courtroom scene). At any rate, they are terrifically imaginative, particularly the standout Ventriloquism Press Conference and the line-up on Death Row.
It doesn’t take a genius to work out that, in today’s world of Instant
Celebrity, the satirical bite of Chicago’s message still carries some
relevance, except nowadays you don’t have to kill someone, you only have to marry a footballer…
To sum up, Chicago is superb entertainment, even if, as many right-thinking people did, you loathed and despised Moulin Rouge. It razzles, it dazzles and it sends you out of the cinema with a spring in your step. Highly recommended.