Chicago sings and dances its way into the heart

Todd Vanderwerff

Todd Vanderwerff

I’m decidedly ambivalent about Chicago. I really, really liked it, but I kind of feel like the spawn of Satan for not LOVING it with every cell in my body. It’s a heck of a lot of fun and proof positive that the movie musical is back in a big way, but it’s no Singin’ in the Rain. It’s not even Moulin Rouge.

Chicago certainly wins awards for having the darkest movie musical story this side of Cabaret. It tells the story of Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger, who turns in the weakest performance of the leads), who will do anything to become famous. When she murders a man who promises to take her to the top (don’t worry, this all happens in the first ten minutes), she is sent to jail, where she meets the inimitable Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones who, and I can’t believe I’m writing this, deserves at least an Academy Award nomination) and accepts the services of lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), who turns her into a star.

Chicago gets a lot of mileage out of its three main stars, but also from the more-than-capable work of Queen Latifah and John C. Reilly. The songs are flashy and fun, the singing is excellent (no one in the cast has a Broadway show-stopper voice, but it really isn’t necessary), and the dancing sizzles, when director Rob Marshall isn’t cutting around it (pay attention to which of the three leads he most often avoids showing dancing in a full-shot).

I don’t know why Chicago didn’t burrow its way into my soul and take up residence like Moulin Rouge did. Perhaps it was because Baz Luhrmann’s decidedly odd pastiches of musical and film styles told a near archetypal story of love and loss, while Chicago is decidedly colder and more cynical (try looking for a character to root for in this one like you could for Ewan MacGregor in Moulin Rouge).

However, Chicago suffers from one flaw which nearly kills the film. The musical numbers are passed off as fantasies occurring in Roxie’s mind. This is okay, as it is a stylistic trope which has been used in countless musicals. However, when the musical numbers occur in Roxie’s mind, they always occur on stage, as one might see them in the Broadway production of Chicago.

We see film adaptations of Broadway shows to see things the Broadway shows couldn’t show us. Why not show the chorus erupting onto the streets of Chicago (a la Julie Andrews twirling through the Alps in The Sound of Music) or present the numbers in the courtroom as actually occurring in the courtroom?

Ultimately, what could have been a fatal flaw becomes a minor quibble because the actors are so good and the musical numbers are so strong. Every number feels like a grand finale, which tends to throw things off kilter every so often, but the film always rights itself.

When this movie inevitably collects its Best Picture Oscar come March, I won’t be apoplectic like I was when Gladiator won, but I will be a bit sad.

Chicago is a lot of fun and I wholeheartedly recommend it to song and dance fans or anyone just looking for a fun night at the movies. It’s just not the best picture of the year.

4.5 stars

#1.887595:338892335.jpg:chicago.jpg:Catherine Zeta-Jones plays Velma Kelly in Chicago. The film won three Golden Globes Sunday, including Best Musical or Comedy and awards for Renee Zellwiger and Richard Gere.:Courtesy photo