In 2001, Baz Luhrmann brilliantly resurrected the movie-musical genre with “Moulin Rouge,” undoubtedly paving the way for Rob Marshall’s spectacular movie adaptation of the 1975 stage production “Chicago.” As a newcomer to motion pictures, Marshall takes a risk with this new musical and succeeds, literally, with flying colors.
Though the film mimics the staccato rhythm and highly stylized cinematography of “Moulin Rouge,” the musical interludes are unobtrusive, and the clear-cut narrative makes “Chicago” more palatable for audiences. The film’s surreal song and dance numbers pay slight homage to Lars Von Trier’s more experimental musical film, “Dancer in the Dark.” Still, “Chicago” is accessible to both the mainstream and film artists. This musical’s content can be easily appreciated by women and men alike being doused with scantily clad but self-confident women.
From the opening sequence, Marshall dishes out the eye candy and sets the energetic tone for us to indulge in for the next 113 minutes. Only one warning: don’t sit too close to the screen! Catherine Zeta-Jones, as Velma Kelly, captures our attention with a seductive performance of the infamous “All That Jazz.” Frenetically, the camera cuts between this and the ensuing narrative about Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger).
The film follows the starry-eyed chorus girl wannabe who shoots her lover after he threatens to leave her. Roxie winds up in prison where the former vaudeville sensation and fellow murderess Velma Kelly already resides. With the help of the matron “Mama” (Queen Latifah), both women acquire the assistance of the lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), reputed for never having lost a case. Roxie’s dimwitted husband (John C. Reilly) pays Billy enough to take Roxie’s case, and Billy plans to win no matter what. As Roxie gains public sympathy through the media, her place in the spotlight leaves Velma in the shadows. The women prove they will do anything for stardom, caring more about recognition than their own lives. Though set in 1920s vaudevillian Chicago, these themes of a scandalous justice system and crimes-made-entertainment remain timeless.
Though the storyline stays simple, it provides an adequate structure for Marshall to decorate using his elaborate cinematic techniques. The film is funny, flashy and sexy, yet, the dark subject matter elegantly weaves its way throughout. Lighting shifts from the dark seductive ambience of leather bound women on death row to the luscious colors of a glitzy circus sequence. “Chicago” is dominated by the juxtaposition between the real and surreal. The fantastical song and dance sequences are displayed through characters’ subjective fantasies, giving Marshall complete power of artistic freedom.
“Chicago” can also be praised for the expert performances of its all-star cast. Catherine Zeta-Jones is the appropriate candidate for the sultry vamp, Velma Kelly, yet Renee Zellweger seemed a questionable choice. Nonetheless, Zellweger’s screen presence dominates the film and is equally, if not more, alluring than Zeta-Jones.’ She gives Roxie Hart an enticing dimensionality with her vulnerable yet underhanded guise. Marshall provides the perfect opportunity for these actors to break out of their traditional roles. Who would have expected to see the fumbling Bridget Jones as a seductive murderess, or the well-reserved Gere in sparkles and tap shoes? Also added to the mix is a fabulous, and hilarious, performance by Queen Latifah, Reilly’s heart breaking rendition of “Mr. Cellophane,” and Taye Diggs spicing up the atmosphere as a jazzy emcee.
“Chicago” awards the feel of a live stage production, and the cinematic qualities allow each spectator the best seat in the house. Rob Marshall’s masterful choreography of music, dance and cinema will surely be no stranger at the Academy Awards this year.