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Chicago

Threat advisory: Severe - Severe risk of entertaining activities

Movie propaganda

Set in the roaring 20s, this is the story of Chicago chorus girl Roxy Hart (Renée Zellweger), who shoots her unfaithful lover.

Landing in jail, she meets Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), another chorus girl and murderess, currently enjoying media attention and legal manipulation, care of her attorney Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), king of the old "Razzle Dazzle." Soon enough however, Flynn takes Roxy's case as well, and Velma finds herself old news as Roxy is now the most famous murderess in town, on her way to getting out of jail and becoming a star. The two go through a series of attempts at getting what they both want (often conflicting): freedom and fame...

Theatrical propaganda posters

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Target demographic movie keyword propaganda

  • Film musical theatre Chicago roaring 20s murder jail women's prison song dance lawyer

Persons of interest

  • Renée Zellweger .... Roxy Hart
  • Catherine Zeta-Jones .... Velma Kelly
  • Richard Gere .... Billy Flynn
  • John C Reilly .... Amos Hart
  • Christine Baranski .... Mary Sunshine
  • Dominic West .... Fred Caseley
  • Queen Latifah .... Matron "Mama" Morton
  • Deirdre Goodwin .... Liz
  • Mary Ann Lamb .... Annie
  • Colm Feore .... Martin Harrison
  • Lucy Liu .... Go-to-Hell Kitty
  • Mya .... Mona
  • Fred Ebb .... Author
  • John Kander .... Original Music
  • Fred Ebb .... Original Music
  • Bill Condon .... Screenwriter
  • Rob Marshall .... Director

Cinematic intelligence sources

Intelligence analyst

Agent Provocateur Alexander Feld

Theatrical report

The quicker said the better. Chicago is just about the finest screen musical in over thirty years.

It has waited nearly as long to get to the screen. The material has been around for eternity. The original play The brave little woman, by a Chicago court reporter, was based on real-life pot-boiler murders and ensuing trials. This appeared in 1926, a silent movie followed. Hollywood had another go at, producing Roxie Hart in 1942. (With the non-singing Ginger Rogers in the title role, it is, incidentally, one of the best comedies of the war years.) Composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb, on a high after the film version of Cabaret, tackled the material; their Chicago opened in 1975. This was on a Broadway that had barely survived the revolutions of Hair and its ilk intact and, woe for all, the 70s megashow, schmaltzy A chorus line, was packing them in across the street. Although Chicago was a hit, with a cast headed by Chita Rivera, Gwen Verdon and Jerry Orhbach, and featuring some of Director/Choreographer Bob Fosse's finest work, it did not hit its stride until the 1996 revival. This clipped, classy theatre was just what was needed on a Broadway still infested with the bloated corpses of Les miz and Phantom. And, in a jaded post-OJ and Monica world, its time had finally come.

The tale is simple, gritty, and prescient. Against a torrid backdrop of the Jazz-Age, Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger), a struggling blonde "dancer-singer", is arrested for murdering her lover. This steals the limelight from another murderess, working showgirl Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Their lawyer is the oily muck-raker Billy Flynn (Richard Gere). You can guess both the ending and the almost amoral moral - themes of media exploitation of the masses, the kangaroo court like surrounds of a celebrity trial, and the glamorisation of criminals, in this case cold-blooded murderers. It was relevant then, all the more so now.

Although Kander and Ebb are essentially traditionalists (read New York, New York), their best works (Cabaret, Chicago, The rink, Kiss of the Spider Woman) are highly stylised theatre that juxtaposes fantasy and reality. The team's dream director, Bob Fosse, went even further in film adaptation. In his seminal Cabaret (1972), nearly every musical number was removed from its setting and placed in the Kit Kat Club, the actual Cabaret. Many were discarded. Although unorthodox adaptation, it made the picture's strongest moments (an impromptu Nazi anthem at a biergarten, the broken scenography during the final title number) stirring filmmaking. Kander and Ebb probably considered these examples when they returned to the stage with Chicago; each musical number, either introducing a character or advancing the drama, is essentially a dream sequence. Although most of it occurs in the head of Roxie, accountability depends upon the number and, ultimately, the audience. The drama is also egged on here and there by the appearance of a "bandleader", sort of a Vaudeville Greek chorus, played admirably here by Taye Diggs, clearly reminiscent of Joel Grey's enigmatic Emcee.

The concept is both sophisticated and effective on the stage, and on the screen has the inherent ability to make confirmed show-stoppers (there are several) palatable to the worst Broadway scrooge. Helping matters greatly is the score, subtle, jazzy and brassy, featuring one standout after another. There was great concern about the unlikely casting choices, but they have paid off handsomely; the lead performers, who have clearly worked very, very hard, handle both their dramatic and musical tasks with aplomb. Zellweger, who certainly doesn't spring to mind as a musical diva, is a terrific Roxie, conveying the sordid aspects of her cheating, murdering character even while maintaining her inherent appeal. Zellweger actually makes this rough, double-dealing, conniving, untalented dumb "blonded" blonde murderess sympathetic. She proves more than capable in the dance department, and her stylish singing is a total success. There is more than a touch of the quivering of Billie Holiday in her delivery.

Musically, one particularly fine moment seems staged as a send-up of Marilyn Monroe's Diamonds are a girl's best friend. Perhaps taking a cue from Moulin Rouge, the resulting blonde-with-guys–in-tails number is as much about Madonna's lionising videos as it is about Marilyn, as it is about the actual number. In true musical Musical territory here, the slick Zellweger rises to the occasion. She is a natural.

Speaking about perfectly natural, Zeta-Jones is sensational. She may have done some musical turns (remember that twisted parody of a musical in America's sweethearts?) but this Louise Brooks wigged flapper is a revelation - tart, sexy and sassy, a Jazz Baby with a brain. Zeta-Jones' entry, racing to get on stage after an untimely murder, is thrilling enough; her ensuing number, All that jazz, is given kind of sultry, sophisticated rendition that brings to mind Liza Minelli or Shirley MacLaine.

Richard Gere is not an actor one immediately associates with Musical Comedy. To further alarm the punters, his recent work has been average at best. Fear not...in the surprise of the pic, Gere is superb, a first rate Billy Flynn. He is as dashing as ever, and his large-screen presence works well with this over-the-top filmmaking. It may be a generation since he played Zuko in Grease, but he is a natural for this material. He even perfected tap dancing for the part. To complete the success, he masters the character switch from handsome smarmy to rude bellicosity to Musical to amoral to Musical again, with ease.

There is not a weak link in the cast. Roxie's cuckolded doormat of a husband, Amos, is played to pitiable perfection by John C Reilly. His difficult number, Mr Cellophane, here rendered like something of a Vaudeville Pagliacci, is one of the films highlights. Christine Baranski, inches away from caricature, is great as a rapacious reporter. Lucy Liu has a hell-raising appearance as another female murderer, and Chita Rivera, the musical's original Velma, has a welcome but all too brief cameo. Certainly not least, casting Queen Latifah as Mama Morton, the scheming Sapphic prison Matron with a real heart, is virtual genius. She beautifully balances the roles gross caricature with honest emotion. Although her number Class (one of the show's best) is unfortunately cut, she scores big with the lavish, bawdy When you're good to Mama. Although the Styles of Bessie Smith and Sophie Tucker are evident (one even thinks of Pearl Bailey), the result is inimitable Latifah. Do more of the like material, please!

From the opening credits, director Rob Marshall sets a momentum and style that rarely falters during the films succeeding two hours. Although much camera work, particularly in the musical numbers, is clearly reverential to Fosse, is worthwhile to note that the choreography is not. Stage choreography rarely translates well onto the big screen, and all the moves here are original, and intentionally cinematic. (If you want to compare, pop into the Schubert Theatre in New York. Yep, it is still running. Have a look at the Bob Fosse-Ann Reinking choreography. The signature clipped, tight tenuousness is totally absent in the screen version.) Marshall also manages to tell a slightly disjointed story with wit, clarity and precision. Moreover, he can translate a musical number into cinematic gold. Watch They both reached for the gun, a tap-dancing ventriloquistic tour-de-force for Richard Gere, or better yet the showstopper of the score, the Cellblock Tango. Inherently campy and kitsch, ruined by a quarter-century of drag queens, it is a revelation to see this number, led by Zeta-Jones in almost dominatrix style, fierce, angry and honest.

The musical may indeed have returned as a valid genre with Chicago. Aside from a relevant story, an excellent script, superb cinematography, brilliant production design, fine performances, it has in abundance what no other movie musical has had in one bloody long time... first class music.

Security censorship classification

M (Medium level violence, adult themes)

Surveillance time

114 minutes (1:54 hours)

Not for public release in Australia before date

Film: 23 January 2003
DVD retail: 17 September 2003
VHS retail: 17 September 2003
DVD rental: 21 September 2005 - Special edition

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