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IN SHORT: The Best Film of the Year 2002. [Rated PG-13 for sexual content and dialogue, violence and thematic elements. 110 minutes]
In general, it would not be an inaccurate characterization to say that we hate musicals. We hate stories that stop suddenly so a song or dance number can be forcibly inserted which is where most film adaptations of Broadway musicals drop the ball. The only two musical films we've liked over the last thirty or so years have all sideswiped that problem by setting themselves inside a theatrical environment. Bob Fosse's Cabaret set itself in a Berlin nightclub. Bob Fosse's All That Jazz was a thinly disguised biography of the director/choreographer. Fosse didn't get to film his second stage collaboration with Kander and Ebb, Chicago. That credit goes to choreographer Rob Marshall who takes the ball, runs with it, and joins the very short list of filmed musicals we like. We can't (and wouldn't try to) compare Fosse's original with Marshall's since we never saw the original. We can sum up the experience succinctly:
What a glorious way to spend time in a movie theater!
With more creator credits than you can shake a stick at, it is remarkable that none of the principal characters in Chicago get the short shrift. The songs, whether solo or group numbers, never get tin the way of the story and that story foreshadows enough possible violence -- 47 years is a long time for a city like Chicago to go without a judicial execution, so one must be coming -- that we had to check our watch twice when the end credits rolled. Murder. Glamour. Sex. Short skirts and Media Circuses and All That Jazz, all in less than two hours. Remarkable
The actual story beyond the story is true: In the glory days of the Roaring Twenties, a murder by a woman named Roxie Hart generated tabloid headlines in Chicago. A hit play was staged in 1926, written by Maurine Dallas Watkins, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. A silent film followed in 1927 plus a talkie starring Ginger Rogers in 1942. Kander, Ebb and Fosse went to Broadway in 1975 with Fosse's wife Gwen Verdon, and Chita Rivera in title roles. Both Fosse and Verdon have passed, but Rivera makes a cameo early on in this film.
Chicago's story begins before the Hart murder, though Roxie (Renee Zellweger, click for StarTalk), a chorus girl and lover Fred Caseley (Dominic West), who has promised to "make some calls to help her career" are in the Club Onyx when star performer Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones, click for StarTalk) shows up for her sister act minus her sister. A month later Hart murders Fred and gets her sap of a dimwit husband Amos Hart (John C. Reilly), to take the fall. Assistant DA Martin Harrison (Colm Feore) sees through the ruse and sends Roxie to murderer's row at Cook County Jail, though no one has been executed in Cook County in 47 years. There a couple of bucks in the hand of Matron Mama Morton (Queen Latifah) will take care of the basic needs including a recommendation to hire attorney Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), who has reporter Mary Sunshine (Christine Baranski) firmly in his pocket. Soon, Roxie's case is an even more celebrated murder than Velma's and Roxie starts to believe all the Flynn concocted stories about her background and motives.
Roxie, in this version, has a vivid fantasy life and a burning desire to be as famous a performer as Velma (and her sister Veronica) once were. Everything in Roxie's life becomes an excuse for some kind of song and/or dance number, all of which meld perfectly with the drama. Add Taye Diggs as the bandleader/ emcee of all the proceedings and there's little that can top our infamous duo's murderous fame.
Except for Go-to-Hell-Kitty (Lucy Liu), who tops 'em all by killing not only her cheating husband but the two, count 'em two, women she caught sharing his bed. When Roxie is no longer the focus of media attention, well, she's going to have to do something dramatic. Before that happens, Velma gets to smirk the big smirk, seeing Roxie stew.
There's no "white hat" among our leading characters, though Reilly's Amos is the most sympathetic of the bunch. It may help to know that the most famous radio program of the day was called "Amos and Andy," to get one of the jokes in the script but the joke has a wonderful payoff as Roxie comes to trial. And while we've been tossing the original director's name all over the place, we're reminded that all the choreography for Chicago, is by Rob Marshall. As the first production number, "All That Jazz" hits the screen, any grownup cannot miss what we'll describe as a tribute to the main set piece of Cabaret. From there on in, Chicago the Film evolves into something spectacular by the time the final curtain comes down. Gere dances as well as Zellweger and Zeta-Jones can sing, and that's no snide aside.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Chicago, he would have paid . . .
sex, murder, short skirts, long legs and all that jazz. We'll see it twice.
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