I hated Moulin Rouge, but that doesn’t mean I hate musicals; it just means I hate self-consciously chaotic messes. I mention that film only because it may give all future musicals a bad name. Those who share my disdain for Moulin Rouge should try to get over that trauma and submit to the expertly crafted pizzazz of Chicago. Here, finally, is a movie musical made by people who know what they’re doing. In all, it’s the most electrifying entry in the genre since Dancer in the Dark, though admittedly a lot more lightweight than that rewarding ordeal.
The material has knocked around for decades, most famously in the Broadway musical of the same name, which opened in 1975 under the watch of Bob Fosse and songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb. As with most musicals, great and bad, the “book” — the story — is very simple. Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger), who has dreams of being a star on the Chicago stage, kills a callous lover and almost gets her sap husband Amos (John C. Reilly) to take the fall for it. Roxie is thrown in jail, where she meets two-time murderess Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a song-and-dance star who killed her husband and her sister after catching them in flagrante delicto. They compete for the attention of the hungry media and the venal lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), who can beat any murder rap as long as his client greases his palm to the tune of $5,000.
Chicago sees the judicial process as just another form of show-biz, a viewpoint that seemed overly sour in 1975 but looks perfectly plausible after the countless celebrity trials of recent years (including Winona Ryder, whose arm injury might’ve earned a smirk of approval from Velma). Roxie has well-scrubbed innocence to sell, and sells it so well that a sympathetic nation gives their hearts to her. Velma has wit and show-biz instinct — she works with Billy on the manipulative bits of business she’ll wow the jury with as if they were both choreographing a new number, as indeed they are. Taking Fosse’s cue, director Rob Marshall and screenwriter Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters) adore Roxie and Velma precisely because they’re cast-iron lying vixens — the breed of outsize divas that used to power classic Hollywood movies.
A lot of hard work must’ve gone into the film — prepping the somewhat rusty Zellweger and Gere for musical numbers, for instance (Zeta-Jones has a more solid and recent singing-dancing background). But you don’t see the sweat; you just see passion and joy. Chicago looks as though it was a great deal of fun to make, even if it wasn’t. Gere is a somewhat forced singer, but he makes up for it with a colorful and sleazy turn, especially during his numbers “All I Care About” (money) and “Razzle Dazzle” (which re-imagines a tense courtroom moment as a tap-dance). Zellweger is a pleasure to watch as she morphs from frightened convict to seasoned spin-mistress, but Zeta-Jones is the real star here; she takes the stage (and the screen) with the hunger of a lioness, kicking the movie off beautifully with “All That Jazz” and sneering her way through the show-stopper “Cell Block Tango.” Queen Latifah, too, scores as the prison matron with the ribald number “When You’re Good to Mama.” Even John C. Reilly gets a poignant tune, “Mr. Cellophane,” lamenting Amos’ invisibility.
I felt like applauding after all these numbers; I felt like applauding the movie. Chicago is exactly the sort of big, silly trifle that audiences in similarly dark times (war, depression) used to escape to, and I see no reason why it shouldn’t be as huge a hit as it deserves to be. Loud, and without a shy bone in its body, Chicago shows us what we’ve been missing, just as (in an entirely different tone and context) Unforgiven showed us what a true example of another moribund genre — the western — should look like. And it shows, along with 2001’s cult item Hedwig and the Angry Inch, that it’s not lack of talent or brassiness that keeps musicals and movies segregated; it’s Hollywood’s perception of a lack of interest in movie musicals.