When you look at decades where there are plenty of economic and political disruption Hollywood seems to forefront with the introduction of musicals. In the 30s, 40s and 60s the musical helped regular people go to the movies and forget the problems of the world for a couple of hours and lose themselves in a magical world where people broke into song to express themselves. Now, during these fledgling years of this new millennium the musical is once again back as a popular genre. It began with Moulin Rouge, a romp of song and dance that resurrected musicals. Now, with the overwhelming popularity of the venerable Broadway show, Chicago has hit the big time in the box office and now turns to conquer DVD. Renee Zellweger as Roxie Hart is a young song and dance wannabe who winds up killing her lover. She convinces her husband Amos Hart (John C. Reilly) to pay for her defense. That defense would be provided by is Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), who claimed that for $5000 he can get anyone off of anything. Another defendant is Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who killed her sister and husband after finding them performing a little horizontal dance. The film is not some much a plot driven by song and dance as it is song and dance briefly interrupted by a bit of story. Not that I minded it the way Chicago presents it. Personally, I’ve seen enough heavy films with plots that demand that you take notes to understand. There is a place for these heavy films but now, as in the decades long gone, we can all use a bit of a break from CNN, Fox News and other purveyors of grim news. The film progresses from musical number to musical number, each one building on the excitement created by the previous one. This film grabs hold of you the moment Velma belts out ‘All That Jazz’ until by the time the closing credits appear you feel that you had the time of your life. There is a lot of common ground between the roaring twenties and today. Scandal newspapers are sought after more than serious news. Celebrity is the Holy Grail that all desire and those that do not have what it takes, endlessly dream about. The media buzz around a high profile murder case full of sex and scandal or a celebrity on trial is something we have all seen but never as entertaining as it is presented here.
If you were casting a big budget, high profile musical you most likely would not have thought of any member of this cast. After all Richard Gere as a tap dancing lawyer, what where they thinking? The bottom line is this is the perfect cast for this film. Gere really comes across as the ultimate showman lawyer. He manipulates the judge, jury and, of course, the all important media. When his character claims that if Jesus Christ lived in Chicago and had $5000 history would be a lot different, we believe him. Catherine Zeta-Jones owes the role of Velma. She is sexy, sultry and can belt out a song and dance with the best of them. Her show business start and in musical theater and it is obvious that she remember those lessons very well. Zellweger is not as strong as Zeta-Jones in the song and dance arena but considering she is playing a wannabe it works. She plays the murderess as victim to perfection, permitting herself to be reinvented by her shady lawyer. with today's crazy for 'reality' television and the drive for a moment in the spot light it is easy to understand what drove Roxy. She desired fame at all cost. the audience is just as duped as the people in the film forgetting that she is a murder not the innocent she presents to the public. Reilly is a consummate character actor. He has one of those faces that you constantly see in both high profile flicks as well as those little independent films that most of us love. As a long time member of the ensemble group used by P.T. Anderson in such films as Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Hard Eight Reilly holds down the non-musical aspects of this filmand even rises to the occasion for his musical number. The real break out star of this film is former Hip-Hop singer Queen Latifia. While many of the super stars of this genre of music have endeavored to enter film few have made the transition as well as the Queen. She has paid her dues in sit-coms on television and with this film shows she has the chops to handle any type of film around.
It may have seemed a large leap of faith to entrust this high budget film to a director with a limited resume. Chicago represents director Rob Marshall’s freshman effort for the big screen. He did direct a television presentation of Annie which without a doubt contributed to his amazing understanding of the musical genre. The way in which this film flows is in itself very interesting; it has the feel of an old time vaudeville show. There are song and dance numbers, a sexually charged performance and even puppets and a ventriloquist act all incorporated into the film. All this adds to the wonder and magic of this movie. He takes on topics that still hold as true today such as the manipulation of the media by these high powered lawyers by having Gere literally pulling the strings of the reporters and putting words in his client’s mouth. I’ve always enjoy the visualization of a good pun. Marshall’s use of light, framing and action is near perfection. I particularly enjoyed the moment when Billy's case is about to crash and he literally tap dances his way out of it.
A movie as enjoyable as this deserves a disc that is up to the task. Fortunately, Buena Vista rose to the challenge. The one downside here is the lack of a commentary track. After hearing the cast and crew speak about the film I would have greatly enjoyed a scene by scene breakdown. The Dolby 5.1 sound track is booming, filling your room with a crisp, clear sound field. The anamorphic 1.85:1 video captures the excitement of he film and the details in the splashy costumes. There are some interesting deleted scenes and a behind the scenes feature that helps to demonstrate the hard work all the people involved took on. There is little doubt that Hollywood will cash in on the success this film had both in the box office and the Oscars by making many more musicals. Get this one now so you have a touchstone to judge the rest and most importantly for the innate enjoyment this film holds. Forget the news for a little while and go back to the time when a song and dance could help you through difficult times.