“It’s just a noisy hall where there’s a nightly brawl...”Chicago on film, at last!
“It’s just a noisy hall where there’s a nightly brawl...”
Chicago on film, at last!
I'm sure you've all had the experience of sitting in a movie theater and wanting to dump a whole bag of popcorn over the head of one of your neighbors. Usually it's overt rudeness on the other person's part that prompts such feelings of ill will -- they're talking loudly to their companion, they're answering their cell phone, or they're idiotically aiming one of those laser pointers at the screen. My personal bête noir is a form of ignorance exemplified by the behavior of two individuals whom I encountered not too long ago at theatrical showings of two of the best movie musicals ever made: West Side Story and The Sound of Music (both directed by Robert Wise).

What happened was that this man (at WSS) and woman (at TSOM) just could not keep themselves from laughing derisively every time one of the performers on screen switched from normal speech to singing. To their minds, it was ridiculous that characters in a film would sing to express their emotions. (I guess they were unaware that West Side Story the The Sound of Music are musicals.) They were especially tickled by the so-called "bumps" in these movies -- i.e., the moments when speech segués into song -- even though one of Robert Wise's greatest talents was to make such transitions virtually seamless. The infuriating thing was that their sniggering, rather than seeming to be a spontaneous reaction to what they were seeing, came across as if these people just had to let it be known that they were much smarter and more hip than the rest of the audience. And it's that kind of jaded response, my friends, that has helped to keep movie musicals off of screens for about a quarter of a century.

Well, if the man and woman cited above go to see Rob Marshall's hot new film version of Chicago, they won't be sniggering. Aside from the many other reasons why this superb John Kander-Fred Ebb-Bob Fosse stage musical was ripe for film adaptation is its overtly presentational nature. On stage, the effect is achieved by having all of the musical numbers announced by the band leader or various cast members as if they were vaudeville turns -- e.g., "For her first number, Miss Roxie Hart sings a song of love and devotion dedicated to her dear husband Amos." This conceit has been carried over to the film in the most creative way possible. As you've probably heard by now, every number in Marshall's Chicago -- except for Velma Kelly's "All That Jazz" at the beginning and Velma and Roxie Hart's "Nowadays"/"Hot Honey Rag" at the end -- is presented as if it were imagined by the fame-obsessed Roxie. The result should be highly palatable to even the most literal-minded audience members. (The exemplary screenplay is by Bill Condon, of Gods and Monsters fame.)

Roxie and Billy: Zellweger and Gere
Roxie and Billy: Zellweger and Gere
Given that Chicago was first seen on stage in 1975, starring the amazing Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera, the new Miramax movie has got to be the most belated film version of a Broadway musical in history -- but, given the quality of the finished product, this is definitely a case of better late than never. The flick had been in development for over 20 years, with Goldie Hawn, Liza Minnelli, and Madonna mentioned as possible stars at various times. In the event, Renée Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones act, sing, and dance so well as Roxie and Velma that their casting can scarcely be second-guessed. (The only regrettable aspect of the film is that two of the show's best songs, "My Own Best Friend" and "Class," have been cut, along with such other numbers as "When Velma Takes the Stand" and "A Little Bit of Good." In partial recompense, Zellweger and Zeta-Jones sing a brand new Kander & Ebb song called "I Move On" over the end credits.)

Directed and choreographed by Marshall, Chicago cost a bundle -- and it looks it, thanks in large part to the production design of John Myrhe and the cinematography of Dion Beebe. Marshall did a creditable job of directing the Disney TV-movie version of Annie, but his work on Chicago is truly brilliant: One is continually dazzled by the way in which he presents the musical numbers (most of them introduced by Taye Diggs as the bandleader). The film opens with the adrenaline rush of "All That Jazz," performed by Zeta-Jones at "The Onyx Club" immediately following Velma's murder in flagrante delicto of her cheating husband and sister. This is intercut with Roxie's subsequent murder of Fred Casely (Dominic West), a crime specifically motivated in the film by her discovery that the guy's promise to boost her show business career was nothing more than a pre-coital lie. During "All That Jazz," we see a brief shot of the riveted Roxie imagining herself in Velma's place, but the poor kid's musical delirium begins in earnest when her wandering mind interprets detectives' flashlights on her face as spotlights for her rendition of "Funny Honey." Later, alone in her prison cell, Roxie hears sounds of a faucet dripping, another inmate's fingers drumming, etc. -- and thus begins the rhythmic vamp for "The Cell Block Tango."

Speaking of perfect casting: Richard Gere is the ideal Billy Flynn in terms of looks and personality. And what a pleasant surprise it is to hear him sing so well, exhibiting a talent that hasn't figured in his professional career for decades. Gere scores in "All I Care About" and "Razzle Dazzle," both numbers reconceived by Marshall in a way that the legendary Bob Fosse would probably have loved. Bereft of the song "A Little Bit of Good," the biological female Christine Baranski is amusing but can't make a socko impression as Mary Sunshine; on the other hand, Queen Latifah is so hot in her "When You're Good to Mama" number that I can't wait to see her "Class" duet with Zeta-Jones, which will reportedly be included as a bonus on the Chicago DVD. Chita Rivera, the first Velma, has a fun cameo as a prison inmate. And, if you have keen eyes, you'll spot such Broadway performers as Ken Ard, Marc Calamia, Denise Faye, Deidre Goodwin, Billy Hartung, Sebastian LaCause, Mary Ann Lamb, Gregory Mitchell, Joey Pizzi, Cynthia Onrubia, and Scott Wise among the film's ensemble.

Kelly girl: Zeta-Jones as Velma
Kelly girl: Zeta-Jones as Velma
Those who reacted badly to the six-cuts-per-second aspect of Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge will be delighted to hear that Chicago is much less frenetic in that regard, thanks to the more reasonable but still exciting approach of director Marshall and editor Martin Walsh. One more technical note about something that makes all the difference in the world for this movie: The lip-synching is terrific in terms of the performers matching their lip movements to the pre-recorded songs and, just as importantly, in that the singing actually seems to be coming live from these people in the spaces depicted, rather than sounding as if it was laid down in a studio weeks or months beforehand (which, of course, it was). On the evidence of the film version of Evita and the TV movie of Bye, Bye Birdie, I had thought that the convincing presentation of pre-recorded musical numbers was a lost art, but it seems to have been found again.

Chicago garnered eight Golden Globe Award nominations and has already generated phenomenal word-of-mouth in preview screenings. If it's as big a hit as it seems poised to be, it really could be the vanguard of a new age of movie musicals. I don't know if we're going to see a film of the Ahrens-Flaherty-McNally Ragtime anytime soon -- that wonderful piece is probably too earnest, heartfelt, and conventional for modern sensibilities -- but Rent would make a great flick in the right hands. And though some people have voiced the opinion that movies of the Broadway musical versions of The Producers and Hairspray would be redundant, since both were adapted from films to begin with, I beg to differ. Bringing these shows to the screen with the original stage stars intact might well lead to critical hosannas and box-office gold.

The fact that we can even conceive of such a thing happening is largely due to the efforts of Rob Marshall and everyone else involved in Miramax's Chicago. The movie is so good as to invite many repeat viewings -- even at 10 bucks a pop. I'll see you at the Ziegfeld this weekend.