Top Fifty Films of the 00s — Number Twenty-One


#21 — Chicago (Rob Marshall, 2002)
When Rob Marshall was charged with bringing Chicago from the stage to the big screen, it had been years since a musical had achieved significant success at the box office, so there was a prevailing concern that audiences weren’t receptive to characters breaking out into song. Well, unless the characters in question were animated animals. Concerned about this, Marshall devised a solution. In the very beginning of the film, the camera presses in on the eye of Roxie Hart, cuing the audience the portions of what’s to follow exist in the imagination of the lead character. The primary intent of this tactic is to separate the singing and dancing from the narrative, making sure it doesn’t undermine the storytelling. The more important result is that it adds intriguing shadings to Roxie Hart and deepens the well of her ambition. An understanding arises that these sharp strides across a stage and wry, dark lyrics aren’t the world Roxie resides in, but the world she covets, her desire for the reinvention of stardom edging closer to pathological levels with every number. Marshall may have been seeking a way to short-circuit the jaded nature of modern audiences, but what he found was a way to infuse the entirety of his film with riveting psychological depth.

It helps, of course, that Marshall and screenwriter Bill Condon started with great material. Chicago debuted on Broadway in 1975 as a John Kander, Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse collaboration, and was revived to great fanfare in 1996. Adapted from a play based on real events written by Maurine Dallas Watkins in the nineteen-twenties, Chicago follows a jazz age dreamer who murders a thuggish lover and finds herself tossed into the slammer. Her fame grows, quickly eclipsing the pen’s previous star, the luminous Velma Kelly, who offed her sister and husband, then delivered an encore by turning in a boffo nightclub performance of “All That Jazz” before the Windy City’s boys in blue arrived to slap the cuffs on. On this framework are hung an array of splendid Kander-Ebb compositions, mixing beautiful tunefulness and invention with dryly funny, pitch black lyrics. What’s more, Marshall benefited from previous stagings of the production, lifting images and other visual motifs that were established successes on the boards.

However, that doesn’t mean Marshall coasted on the material, plopping his camera down in the front row a soaking it all in. He brings an feverish energy to his direction, editing between long shots that capture the full vibrancy of a dozen bodies writhing together in Fosse-esque sensuality and tight focus right within the fray, practically making the viewer another chorus member, working to keep up. Marshall cuts a lot, but never too much and never too often. He builds visual beats to match the music, accentuating the kinetic splendors of the scenes. With something like “The Cell Block Tango,” he manages to consistently get the lens right where your eyes most want to be, snapping off perfectly realized images with dizzying urgency. The musical numbers largely take place in an area that’s clearly a stage, but the film never feels stagebound, locked in by a staid fealty to documenting the action they way you’d see it on a stage. Instead, Marshall has clearly thought about the way it should look as a film, considering those sequences the same way another director on another film might figure out the right dynamics for a car chase, taking advantage of his ability to see and show whatever part of the action is most enlivening and illuminating at any given point in time.

Marshall has also assembled an exceptionally strong cast, occasionally making unorthodox choices for who fills the roles, but always with a mindfulness that he needs skilled actors, not just seasoned belters. Renee Zellweger plays Roxie as an impetuous woman continually flummoxed by the neediness of her own aspirations. When she sings the song “Roxie,” it’s a rehearsal for the stardom that she’s just certain is entitled her, where her notability and notoriety is so pronounced that she’s obligated to precede her showstoppers we flirty jibes directed to the audience. Zellweger never loses sight of the fact that while she’s got to sing and dance, she’s also got to act. The musical moments aren’t an invitation to recede from the character, they’re an opportunity to dig deeper. Catching the glint of satisfaction in Zellweger’s eyes when she’s essentially playing a ventriloquist dummy in the “The Press Conference Rag,” the hint of pleasure that she’s getting away with something, is like getting a little gift, a happy dose of reassurance that the actress is going to stick to the integrity of her role through every bit of the film. And then there’s Catherine Zeta-Jones as Velma Kelly, one of those gratifying instances of a performer landing in a role that seems genetically engineered to suit them. It’s a character that benefits from star power, but also needs someone prepared to unpack that star power, exposing the anxiety and hustle within. Zeta-Jones charges at it with uncommon gusto, emerging with a resplendent calling card. No matter what she does with the rest of her career, she can always hold this up as proof that, at her best, she had more razzle dazzle than anyone.

Chicago examines the way that infamy is ultimately interchangeable with celebrity in our culture, a theme that will evidently be eternally pertinent. It gets at the slippery nature of justice and even touches on the minefield of female friendships. Above all else, it is a stellar piece of entertainment. It’s grand, it’s great, it’s swell, it’s fun. That’s as impressive of a feat that a filmmaker can achieve nowadays.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

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