“Chicago” - Rob Marshall (2002)

Outstanding cultural works are popularly assumed to be always the products of some creative genius, an auteur who somehow masterminded the whole thing.  But there are sometimes striking exceptions to this pattern, such as the 2002 film musical Chicago.  It was the evolved artistic blend that emerged from a number of creative contributors that combined to make one of the greatest films.

Its history starts with the 1926 stage play, Chicago, by Maurine Dallas Watkins.  This was a biting satirical drama that was inspired by Watkins’s coverage as a newspaper journalist of two Chicago murder trials involving young women who were ultimately acquitted of their murder charges.  A film version of this play was then produced by Cecil B. Demille in 1927.  The story was later adapted by Ben Hecht and Nunnally Johnson for the 1942 comedy Roxie Hart, which was directed by William Wellman and starred Ginger Rogers.

In the 1960s famed director, choreographer, and performer Bob Fosse became interested in making a musical out of Watkins’s play but was only able to secure the rights after her death in 1969.  This led to the production of the hit musical stage play Chicago (1975), which was directed and choreographed by Fosse.   The music for this play was written by John Kander, and the lyrics were by Fred Ebb, with the play’s book written by Ebb and Fosse. 

Although Fosse was also a  famous film director (for example, Cabaret, 1972; and All That Jazz, 1979) and the 1975 Chicago musical  was enormously successful, the film version was not produced until 2002, long after Fosse’s death.  On this occasion, although it was still based on the 1975 musical, a new screenplay was written by Bill Condon, and new choreography was provided by Rob Marshall, who also directed the film.

In addition to these multiple and varied authorial contributions, the film featured outstanding technical production contributions in many areas.  All in all, the film won 6 Oscars, including one for Best Picture, and it was nominated for 6 other Oscars.

The film’s story concerns the two young women:
  • Roxie Hart (played by Renée Zellweger) is a housewife, but she aspires to the glamour and glory of being a vaudeville singer.  She is having an affair with a man who she believes has connections and can advance her career, but who in fact is a fraud who is only abusively using her for sex.  When Roxie finds out about her lover’s deceit, she kills the man and is soon arrested for murder.
  • Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is a successful vaudeville singer and dancer who is initially Roxie’s idol.  When Velma finds her husband in bed with her sister, she shoots and kills both of them.  She, too, is arrested and thrown into the Cook County jail.
There is no doubt about the guilt of these two women.  Their crimes are covered early and quickly to show us that they are both definitely murderers.  The story’s focus instead is on how these women become celebrities in the public eye and use that status to sway the justice system in order to avoid punishment.  As such we could say that the film’s message, like that of the original stage play, is a cynical comment on the public’s fawning obsession with celebrity. 

But the film’s music evokes somewhat different and more compelling feelings – the initially (as stemming from early childhood) innocent yearning for self-fulfillment. Indeed there are primitive, naive emotions expressed by all the principals in this story – emotions that we may not entirely endorse but which we can all recognize and feel. The fact that the principal protagonist, Roxie, is a pretty and impressionable young woman and that much of the story is seen from her perspective accentuates the overall mood of feminine longing. In fact much of the film’s story is presented through the staged musical numbers, which are expressionistically emotional  imaginings, mostly on the part  of Roxie, of the world around her.  This is what makes the film great: expressionistic vaudeville musical numbers primarily telling the story, with other, straight dialogue merely supplementing and filling in the spaces between those narrative-driving musical numbers [1].

Some songs that I particularly liked are
  • "Funny Honey"
    After killing her paramour, Roxie had convinced her loving, cuckolded husband, Amos (John C. Reilly), to shield her and take the rap.  So in her imagination she sings a cabaret-style song of appreciation for her husband’s sweet loving nature.
  • "When You're Good to Mama"
    After Roxie is jailed, she is introduced to the cynically corrupt prison matron, Mama Morton (Queen Latifah), who warns all her women prisoners that they had better do the “right” things to stay on her good side.
  • "Cell Block Tango".  This is my favorite song in the film, and it features the raw emotions of the vengeful women cellmates who are murderers, expressing their angry remorselessness with the refrain:
         "He had it coming,
           He had it coming.
           He only had himself to blame!
           If you'd have been there, if you'd have heard it
           I betcha you would have done the same!"
  • "All I Care About"
    Mama Morton advises Roxie that she had better hire the cynical and shifty lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere).  In Roxie’s imagination, though, he appears, disingenuously, as a romantic idealist, which is his exact opposite.
  • "We Both Reached for the Gun"
    In Roxie’s imagination, Billy Flynn is depicted guiding Roxie’s courtroom testimony as a puppetmaster and ventriloquist, with Roxie sitting on his knee mouthing his words as a stage dummy.  This is an especially memorable contrivance and setting.
  • "Mister Cellophane"
    The only sincere and genuine principal in this story is Amos, Roxie’s forgotten husband.  Here he performs a melancholy vaudeville sad sack number bemoaning his perpetually overlooked status.  Even he wants celebrity no matter how hopeless that aspiration might be.
  • "Razzle Dazzle"
    In this song and dance number, Billy Flynn and company celebrate the effectiveness of smoke-and-mirrors showmanship to win the day in court.  Any lucid appeals to justice and moral accountability, of course, are assumed to be inconsequential.
  • "Class"
    One of the very best songs in the show, “Class”, was unaccountably omitted from the movie’s 2002 release, although it was included in some later media releases [2].  It is sung by Velma and Mama Morton, who wistfully wonder, “whatever happened to class?”
In the end, the craftiness of Roxie and Billy Flynn win the day, and both Roxie and Velma are freed.  Although they have always been rivals, their effervescent utilitarian instincts lead them to team up and form their own singing and dancing team.  In this dreamworld, at least, there is a happy ending.

Almost all the songs in the film feature spectacular dancing, including impressive dancing by Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Richard Gere. Usually, Broadway musical choreography is designed to be seen from the distance by a seated audience in a theater.  So when the film version is made, it is natural to show much of the dancing in long shots and relatively long takes.  Here in Chicago, however, the dances are shown with frequent closer-in shots and lots of tight editing.  This is all done very skillfully so that the fluid flow of the dancing is maintained and even enhanced.  I have not seen Bob Fosse’s choreography for the stage production of the musical, but I can say that Rob Marshall’s choreography here in this film is superb.  It is particularly attuned for the cinema and greatly contributes to the emotive narrative flow.

Although the acting in the film is perforce exaggerated, in line with the film’s overall expressionistic intent, the performances of the principal characters on the part of Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, Queen Latifah, and John C. Reilly are all very effective.  Crucial in this regard is the performance of Renée Zellweger, whose rubbery and emotive facial expressions, combined with her energetic sincerity, carried the emotional flow of the film (which was what this narrative was all about).  Although Catherine Zeta-Jones’s emphatic performance and dancing drew more critical praises, it was Zellweger who placed her signature stamp on this film.

  1. Roger Ebert, “Chicago”, RogerEbert.com, (27 December 2002).    
  2. You may be able to see a clip of this song here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3lAqKm1GY5Q

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