CHICAGO (2002)

chicagoI was in for an awesome surprise with this film! One of the actors featured in a fabulous musical scene was Mya Harrison – who I went to high school with. I didn’t realize Chicago was a musical when we first chose it as our next film to watch – but I was definitely pleased. The songs were numbers I had heard before, and the choreography and showmanship was fantastic. Having a familiar face pop up on the screen was just the icing on the cake!

 But I am getting a little ahead of myself. Chicago is the story of Roxie Hart, a young woman bored in her marriage who wants more than anything to be a performer on the stage. She gets wrapped up in a torrid love affair, thinking that the man she is involved with might be able to get her an in in show business. When he announces he is leaving her and that he never had any real connections to help her with her career, she loses it. They have a confrontation and he tosses her against the wall. She gets a gun from the drawer and shoots him, killing him. It is against this backdrop that our story begins.

Let’s see if I remember this right: this film is adapted from the Broadway musical that was in turn based on the play, itself inspired by real events and the basis for a contemporary silent film. Taking place in a stylized version of Jazz Age Chicago, it aspires to historical accuracy about as much as a typical Halloween costume. Thematically, though, the film nails a few things perfectly. The decade of the 1920s saw the birth of modern mass media and popular culture as we know them. It is the perfect setting to explore themes like trial by news media and the pursuit of fame as its own end, by whatever dubious means. Bear in mind that in the real Chicago of this time, crime boss Al Capone was actively courting media attention, contriving a public image. It was also a time of tremendous change for women in society, coming right after the first generation of the Women’s Movement.

It’s been pointed out that Chicago is the first musical to win Best Picture in 34 years. But I think it’s really more of a danceacal. The elements of the film are, in descending importance: dance, music, character, plot. In fact, the music I found a bit underwhelming. It’s catchy, but in the way a soft-drink jingle is catchy. But as they used to say on Bandstand, you can dance to it. And dance they did, in numbers that are the real substance of the movie. It is the artistic descendant of Busby Berkeley in that it is a musical more worth seeing than hearing; more 42nd Street than Oliver!.

Throughout the film I kept looking at Mouse and saying, “Do you think Richard Gere (who plays crackerjack defense lawyer Billy Flynn, whose smooth-talk is the main reason most of his clients walk) did his own singing and dancing?” I repeated this question about each of the characters, in a bit of disbelief. At the end, when watching the credits, we learned that indeed the bulk of singing and dancing was done by actors and actresses who we know as household names. I thought this was impressive. Additionally, I noticed a few scenes that really seemed to reference Marilyn Monroe – once focused on Richard Gere’s character, the other on Renee Zellweger’s Roxie Hart. As an avowed Monroe fan, I wasn’t sure what to think about this nod. It was complimentary, but I also hoped that most people watching the film would see it as such: a nod to a legend of the silver screen.

And perhaps it’s a testament to my love of sugar-pop: I adored the songs and had most of them stuck in my head for a few days to come. Sure, they weren’t on par with Les Miserables or Phantom of the Opera, but damn, were they catchy. So much so that I had even picked them up somewhere before seeing the movie, and found myself singing along to a few.

I respect that the principle actors did their own singing and dancing, and I don’t fault the film for explicitly saying so in the credits.

Chicago has an awful lot of moral ambivalence. Originally staged in the cynical 1970s, it has no good guys, just two anti-heroines who are indeed murderers. And for them, crime certainly does pay. The most sympathetic character, Roxie’s schlubby husband Amos, never really gets his comeuppance. I appreciate the movie’s comfort with this ambivalence.

Chris is right: I didn’t really LIKE Roxie, but boy did I like watching her. I feel like there should be more stories like this – stories where the characters are intriguing and not necessarily likable. Especially when those characters are women. Too often, we see representations of women as either perfect and sympathetic or horrible and monstrous. Here’s to the happy space in between that Chicago is comfortable portraying.

The year before Chicago’s win, Moulin Rouge had been among the nominees. Prior to that, it had been decades since a musical had been nominated for the big award. The intervening years saw the rise of MTV. Both Chicago and Moulin Rouge show the undeniable influence of music video format. Had the MTV generation arrived to revive an all but dead genre with a “musical as music video approach”? The trend seems to have been short lived. Nonetheless, Into the Woods, Les Miserables and Dreamgirls suggest that Hollywood isn’t done looking to the stage for material.

Also nominated in 2002:
Gangs of New York
The Hours
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
The Pianist

Next film: Rebecca (1940)

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