Of all the genres in film, the movie musical has undergone some of the most dramatic changes. At a time where the musical appeared to be a lost art, it perked audiences up again with a new makeover. Musicals became darker and edgier compared to their counterparts, resulting in the Oscar-winning Chicago.
Chicago was adapted from the famous 1975 musical and was directed by Rob Marshall, known for directing the 2014 musical In the Woods. In the Roaring Twenties, unhappy wife Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger) and vaudeville actress Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) find themselves in prison for murder. Both women have their criminal cases taken by the smooth-talking layer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere). While fighting for fame and celebrity, the two women turn the city of Chicago into a media circus.
Chicago has been heralded as a quintessential modern movie musical. Chicago takes a gritty idea and plays with it in a unique way. The story itself juxtaposes the sensationalism of crime and blends with “showbiz” story. What separates Chicago from the typical musical is a newfound layer of subjectivity. The majority of the songs are imagined by Roxie. These imagined songs are more lavish and staged like a Broadway musical, while the majority of the story is told in real time. It was confusing at first, but the film trains you to adapt to the new style quickly. It was very impressive and avoided having the characters just belt out a catchy tune in the middle of a scene.
For me, the film shines the most through its musical performances. The stage format the film serves as a nod to its Broadway roots. “Cell Block Tango” is perhaps the most famous of the numbers here and it shows. This performance exudes sexual power as the “six merry murderesses of the Cook County Jail” reveal the reasons for their stay. Another number I found really well staged was “We Both Reached for the Gun”. This song is one of the more subjective, as Roxie feels like a ventriloquist’s dummy controlled by Billy Flynn. The staging and design is so eerie, as Roxie and the reporters were puppets and Billy Flynn was manipulating them. It was an excellent summary of what was happening in the eyes of our protagonist. It also shows a sense of irony, as she is a strong-willed murderess who finds herself helpless in the hands of another man.
While this film is enjoyable, there was something that prevented me from enjoying it all the way. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it Chicago doesn’t quite capture everything I wanted it to. Yes, the film is about murderers, but I just couldn’t fall behind Roxie Hart’s behavior. She was insufferable and vain. Even when she lost the attention of the media in the film’s final act, she was still unlikeable. However, Catherine Zeta-Jones’s portrayal of Velma was more likable, even though she is in the same situation as Roxie. Looking back on it, you could probably chalk it up to a difference in performance. I cannot fault the film for sticking to its guns and showing these characters for who they are.
Chicago is a unique take on the movie musical. It is darker and provides an interesting glimpse into the corruption and sensationalism of the 1920’s. It knows when to be gritty and when to give us the ole Broadway ‘razzle dazzle’. With that being said, it doesn’t shy away from being unlikeable. Roxie Hart is not a sympathetic character, as she is willing to do whatever to be a star. Billy Flynn is a puppet master who dazzles the public. I would give this film a solid thumbs-up, for its unique distinction of song and film and for standing by an unlikeable protagonist. Chicago gets a B-.
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