It took all of 35, maybe 40 seconds before I was in awe of the film version of Chicago. I'm sure that somewhere up in heaven -- at least, I hope it's heaven -- Bob Fosse is smiting his forehead and saying "Shit!" as Velma Kelly does in the movie (and in the stage show) with a why-didn't-I-think-of-that subtext when Roxie Hart dreams up that she's pregnant. For Fosse has to be impressed with the way that director-choreographer Rob Marshall and/or screenwriter Bill Condon reconceived the opening scene of the Kander-Ebb musical. It's a masterstroke that makes a very strong opening much, much stronger.
For years, we've become accustomed to Chicago opening with Velma arriving on stage by way of an elevator and leading the performance of the great, tuneful, dazzlingly choreographed "All That Jazz." Admittedly, this presentation of the number expertly set the mood of the sinister and sinewy world of 1920s Chicago, but Marshall and/or Condon have actually woven the song into the plot of the new Miramax film. Before the number starts, we see Velma on her way to work at the nightclub where she and her sister Veronica are doing their act. At this performance, however, the role usually played by Veronica won't be played by anyone. In fact, when Velma is about to enter the club and notices a poster advertising the act, she tears Veronica's name off.
Yes, Velma has just finished finishing off Veronica. This is the night we only hear about later in the stage musical, in the "Cell Block Tango" -- the night when Velma murders both her husband and her sister. In the film, "All That Jazz" is presented as a number that the two sisters perform together -- until tonight. (You know that line Velma has in the tango, the one about washing the blood off her hands? Marshall and Condon wisely show her doing just that before she goes on.) The idea of the magnificent Catherine Zeta-Jones tromping on stage and doing her number solo without a hitch after she's committed a double homicide shows us that this lady has steel insides, not to mention a trouper's insistence that the show must go on and a firm belief that they had it comin'.
Meanwhile, there's Roxie Hart in the audience with Fred Casely, her eyes riveted on Velma. We can see from the look in Renee Zellweger's eyes that Velma is what Roxie would love to be. That said, it pains me to announce -- only seconds after noting how much I loved the opening of this film -- that I do believe it could have been even better. Although I give the Chicago movie a pretty high rating, I'd be a liar if I didn't say that I wish Marshall and Condon had made a few different choices.
As you've undoubtedly heard by now, aside from "All That Jazz" and "Nowadays/Hot Honey Rag," all of the numbers in the film take place in Roxie's head. Good idea, but I think Roxie should have been better established as a person who's crazy about show business. The picture should not have opened with Velma, but with Roxie. (Chicago really is her story, after all; the 1942 film version is titled Roxie Hart for a reason, and Velma Kelly isn't even a character in it.)
So I would have liked to have seen the film open with Roxie and Fred asleep after their (here comes a euphemism) lovemaking. Suddenly, Roxie awakes with a start, sits upright in bed, notices the time on a clock, and starts furiously shaking Fred. "Wake up! We're going to be late!" she cries. As Fred ever-so-slowly rouses himself, Roxie is speedily getting ready and chattering about how she doesn't want to miss Velma and Veronica, two of her favorite entertainers. Turns out she knows everything about the sisters -- their birthdays, how they got started, where they've played, etc. Then, when Roxie sees Velma doing "All That Jazz" as a solo, she whispers to a disinterested Fred: "Wait a minute -- where's Veronica?! Oh, I hope she's all right!"
In other words, Roxie should be the type of person who, if she were alive today, would be just like the rest of us enthusiasts who hit theater related websites on a daily basis and contribute five-six-seven-eight times a day to Talkin' Broadway's All That Chat! If it were made clearer in the Chicago film that Roxie thinks of nothing but show business, it would better support the idea that she sees life in musical comedy terms and that her brain transforms everything she sees into a production number.
I also think that Marshall and/or Condon made a slight mistake in the way they frame Billy Flynn's "All I Care About is Love." The number starts before Billy meets Roxie, but no; she should take one look at him, become mesmerized, and then envision him doing his routine. That Richard Gere is in newsboy clothes for the number isn't right, either; it's really important that Roxie see him as snazzily dressed as in the stage show.
Still, Marshall does an impressive job with "We Both Reached for the Gun." Fosse, of course, had the idea of Roxie as a ventriloquist's dummy perched on Billy's knee; but Marshall has completed the concept by making the reporters mere marionettes, their strings stretching to the theater's rafters to better establish how Billy is manipulating them. It's a great image. Another fine example of Marshall and Condon's having Roxie think of her life in vaudeville terms is the way they handle "Roxie." Here, every time Mrs. Hart delivers a funny line, there's the sound of an audience's appreciative laughter. Terrific idea.
I love how a dripping faucet inspires the "Cell Block Tango" in the movie. And I adore Velma's line near the end of the film, after she suggests that Roxie do an act with her and Roxie replies that she wouldn't consider it because she hates her. Without missing a beat, Velma says: "There's only one business where that's no problem at all."
So, despite my cavils, Chicago is a movie I'll enjoy watching dozens of times -- and, of course, we're lucky to finally have it. The only stage musical that took longer to get to the screen is The Bohemian Girl, which came out in 1935 -- 92 years after the stage premiere. (Well, after all, there were no movies when the show opened in 1843.) By the way: When Chicago opened at the 46th Street (now the Richard Rodgers) Theatre nearly 28 years ago, Zellweger was six and Zeta-Jones five. Now we'll have them as beautiful and talented young women in the film for time immemorial.
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org]