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Chicago the Movie: A Review

I've seen Chicago the stage production twice when it toured through Denver several years ago. I don't remember a whole lot about the first time, except that Alan Thicke, whom I hate, played Billy Flynn moderately well. The second time is much clearer in my head; Belle Callaway turned in a smashing performance as Roxie Hart, and Robert Urich was a near-total dud as Billy, fudging his lines, singing weakly, and transmitting his discomfort to the audience. Anyway, my point is that this is one of those rare occasions where I came to a movie having considerable prior knowledge of what the original production was supposed to be (or, at least, the original touring revival production).

The plot has been altered to make the story more "movie-friendly." The songs are now Roxie's musical nightclub fantasies rather than symbolic vaudeville plot numbers. Fred Casely isn't just Roxie's faithless paramour; he's been promising to introduce her to the owner of a nightclub, but he just said that to get into her pants, and when he dumps her and slaps her around she blows him away. We see Velma Kelly stomp into that very same nightclub, where she performs "All That Jazz" as a solo headliner; we know she's killed her sister and boyfriend, and so do the cops, who arrest her after the number ends. There's a big courtroom scene that combines "Razzle Dazzle," the actual experience in the courtroom, and a new tap dance number that Richard Gere actually performed himself, interspersed with his legal tap dance when Velma, acting as a hostile witness, produces Roxie's diary and Billy has to work things to his advantage. Finally, there's a post-courtroom scene where Roxie auditions for some two-bit producers and fails, but Velma comes to her rescue and they triumph together.

I have to say this about the plot: It never lagged, and the musical numbers were extremely well integrated into the storyline. I hate to think that future musicals will only succeed if they consider the singing and dancing to be fantasies within the context of a "real" story, and I can see this trick becoming a cliche very quickly, but if it results in more movie musicals being created, more power to it.

One thing they removed from a lot of the movie was the cynical humor that made Chicago so popular as a revival. They did this partially by showing too much of the "reality" behind the story--the grim prison, Hunyak's execution, Billy's lavish lifestyle. "All I Care About Is Love" was wrecked, first by some dumb choreography (what was wrong with Fosse's feathers?) and second by intercutting scenes of him in expensive suits, his chauffered Rolls-Royce, etc. with that choreography. On the stage, it was funny to hear him singing about love when you knew he was really a greedhead; by showing his greedheadedness, it stops being ironic and just becomes heavy-handed. There were other such hit-you-on-the-head moments.

The casting appalled me when I first heard about it, but for the most part it works on screen (though of the three principals, only Zeta-Jones might conceivably have a career on the musical stage). Gere is better than most reviewers gave him credit for. He's the wrong physical type for Billy (too pretty), but he does pull off the role convincingly, if occasionally not acidly enough. His singing voice is thin but on key, and I have to admit I was impressed that he could tap dance. Zeta-Jones acts the part of Velma well and can dance and sing well enough that you wonder if, with some more experience, she could be a Broadway triple threat. Zellweger was, unfortunately, miscast; she comes off too much like Jean Hagen's Lina Lamont, or occasionally a pouting Bernadette Peters [looks only], to be convincing as Roxie. (And why did they make her a blonde instead of a redhead, and why did they cut out her "I gotta pee!" line after she shot Fred?) Her singing voice is inadequate for this role, and as a dancer she'd be laughed out of Denver, never mind New York. Frankly, I was appalled that she took the Best Actress award at the Golden Globes.

Easily the best of the others is John C. Reilly, who was a picture-perfect Amos, right down to the blank looks and the accent, and had a nice voice to boot. Christine Baranski, whom I like and who was the only really experienced musical stage performer to appear in any major role in this movie, was OK as Mary Sunshine, but I missed the, er, other types that play that role on stage. Unfortunately, she didn't get to sing "A Little Bit of Good," so she hardly gets to show off any musical chops (probably because she'd make the other females look inferior). Queen Latifah is OK as Mama Morton, but the character is played way too low key, and her lesbian subtext was completely stripped--she performs "When You're Good to Mama" in front of an almost exclusively male audience. Nor do she and Velma get to sing "Class," probably the most inexplicably removed song from the original score. Taye Diggs makes an effective Bandleader, but it's not the kind of role where the actor stands out. Lucy Liu does well with the few seconds of screen time she's given but then vanishes forever. Ditto for the guy who played Fred. And oh, it was nice to see Chita Rivera, if only for a few seconds.

The choreography has echoes of Fosse but is mostly new. Much of it is pedestrian, notably in the solo numbers for Velma, Roxie, and Mama. Zeta-Jones can at least dance, but Zellweger is not a dancer and has mostly moron steps--in "Nowadays," it's pretty evident that she's holding Zeta-Jones back, and in "Roxie," she does some elementary steps while her boys churn around her. Mama's dance is a dull nightclubby fan dance. Easily the most successful new choreography was for "Cell Block Tango," which had all the merry murderesses tangoing with their victims while other ladies writhed behind rows of cell doors (shades of Kiss of the Spider Woman), and "We Both Reached for the Gun," where all the reporters were on puppet strings and went flying around the set (though we didn't need the head shots of Gere-as-puppet master--like duh, people). And the tap dance number was inspired--the tapping itself wasn't all that special, but in context it worked well.

The score cut out "A Little Bit of Good," "I Am My Own Best Friend," "Me and My Baby" (there was an echo of this one in the incidental music), "Class," and "When Velma Takes the Stand," though some dialogue was lifted from the latter. The incidental music was by supreme hack Danny Elfman. There was a new song over the credits--man, what a WASTE of a Kander and Ebb tune--and the tap dance number, really more of a Stomp-type number, was by X. The orchestrations were acceptable, but the timing of the singers left something to be desired on occasion. Important pauses sometimes vanished; at other times, the singers sang the songs rather than acted them.

Overall... would I recommend the movie? Definitely. For all its faults, it's still vastly superior to 90% of what's out there--and I have to recommend any movie musical that excites people who don't normally see movie musicals. Would I recommend the movie over the stage production? Not in a million years.

[POST-OSCAR ADDENDUM] Well, hooray for Chicago, best picture! And hooray for Catherine Zeta-Jones, best supporting actress! (Even if she should've been considered for best actress.) I must admit I'm pleased Zellweger didn't win simply because, as you saw above, I thought her performance was pretty lousy. And why, oh why, must we live in a world where Eminem is honored above Kander and Ebb?

Review copyright 2003, D. Aviva Rothschild

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Copyright 2003, D. Aviva Rothschild. All rights reserved