Sunday, March 12, 2017

Classics: A Review of Chicago By Lauren Ennis

Drugs, alcohol, adultery, celebrity, and murder; these are just some of the elements of a hot selling headline in 2017. Before you start bemoaning the state of modern society just yet, however, these same elements make up a tale of debauchery and decadence set nearly one hundred years ago. Inspired by the frenzy surrounding two real life murder cases, the 2002 hit movie musical Chicago cleverly satirizes the mores and media of the roaring twenties in a way that highlights the darker aspects of our own celebrity centric age. Part escapist journey into the most sordid of the ‘good old days’ and part eerie glimpse into our own present, Chicago is a film with just enough razzle dazzle to leave you begging for more.
The slammer never looked so sexy

The story begins with bored housewife Roxie Hart (Renee Zellwegger) witnessing the arrest of local nightclub sensation Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) while out on the town with her lover, Fred Casely (Dominic West). Later, when she realizes that Fred has no intentions of fulfilling his promise to help her break into show business, Roxie follows in Velma’s footsteps and shoots him to death. After her attempt to disguise the murder as an act of self-defense fails to impress the police, she finds herself on ‘murderess row’ in Cook County Jail facing a potential death sentence. While in prison, Roxie is reunited with Velma, and after witnessing how the stage star uses her notoriety to boost her career becomes determined to capitalize upon her own infamy. When both women enlist the services of slick defense attorney Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), the stage is set for a toe-tapping rivalry that is truly to die for.

Although Chicago marks Roxie and Velma’s fourth incarnation after a previous stage play, a silent drama, and a heavily sanitized 1940’s drama, the film manages to approach its story with a wit and nuance that makes the tale startlingly fresh. Rather than employ the stage technique of having characters spontaneously break out into song, director Rob Marshall cleverly presents all the musical numbers as part of an elaborate fantasy in Roxie’s warped imagination. This technique avoids becoming pretentious by highlighting the outrageousness of both Roxie’s perspective and the whirlwind events surrounding her, while smoothing the transition between story and song. Written by famed stage team Fred Ebb and John Kander the show maintains the musical style and dark sensibility of the duo’s earlier effort, Cabaret, but utilizes a knowing wit and darkly comic approach that ensure the film never becomes outright bleak.

The film manages to pay apt tribute to the story’s stage roots, while still creating a cohesive and fast paced drama.  The majority of the stage musical’s songs are all present, and maintain their distinctive vaudeville vibe and jazzy edge. The group numbers are appropriately dazzling as the songs play upon the overwhelming atmosphere of a crowded courtroom and the dizzying spectacle of a press conference, while the solo numbers contain an intimacy and poignancy that infuse the film with its emotional core. Rather than merely casting singers known for their musical ability, Marshall wisely chose stars who could aptly embody the characters while still performing their roles. As a result, the songs, while crucial, are just one more element in the wider tapestry of the film, as the plot remains front and center and the film avoids falling into the common musical trap of using the plot as a mere excuse for the music. As a result the film appeals equally to both musical theater buffs and moviegoers alike.

Never turn your back on an angry showgirl
The film successfully brings the stage shenanigans of Roxie, Velma, and company to roaring life through the uniformly stellar performances of its cast. Renee Zellwegger provides a fresh take on Roxie, as she manages to imbue her homicidal housewife with a girl next door charm that could win over even the most hardened jury. Catherine Zeta-Jones is a force of nature in her role as nightclub sensation turned notorious killer Velma, and adds depth and nuance to her portrayal of Velma’s desperate efforts to hold onto her career in the notoriously fickle limelight. Queen Latifah is equal parts sassy and sultry in her role as loveably corrupt prison matron, ‘Mama’ Morton. Richard Gere turns on the charm as the quick witted lawyer, Billy Flynn. John C Reilly makes the most of his limited screen time as Roxie’s betrayed husband and makes Amos a three dimensional character, rather than the befuddled dupe he is often portrayed as on stage. Christine Baranski lends an appropriately cynical turn as ‘sob sister’ columnist Mary Sunshine. While the majority of the cast are better known for their acting than their singing, each provides a performance that is nothing short of infectious as they sing, dance, and act with equal aplomb in the tradition of Hollywood’s legendary Golden Age triple-threats.

 From stage to screen 2002’s Chicago is never less than chic. Through its razor-blade sharp wit and toe-tapping tunes the film is guilty as charged of breathing fresh life into the movie musical. Through its biting social commentary the film tells a story that is eerily relevant despite remaining firmly within historical context, all while putting on a show with more than its fair share of razzle dazzle. For a take on the classic movie musical with a modern edge take a tour of Chicago.

Guns blazing, ladies!

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