Chicago: Special Edition Review
Chicago is an adaptation of a moderately well-known and loved stage musical by Kander and Ebb, with choreography from the famed Bob Fosse (the team that also worked on Cabaret, though Fosse himself is also known for Sweet Charity, among others). They had a lot of material to choose from and the pedigree behind this film stretches all the way back to a real life incident in the 1920s... through a play, a silent film, and a non-silent film before it even became a stage musical. This latest incarnation of Chicago takes a new look at the musical and re-invents it, keeping the story and songs the same, but adapting the staging, choreography and feel to provide something bigger and glitzier.
The plot of Chicago takes place in the Chicago of the 1920s: the jazz bars and the pursuit of fame or infamy. The story follows Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger), a young married woman who dreams of becoming a star . While this is not an unusual set-up, what's different about Roxie and several of the other women portrayed in this film is that they’re willing to go to any length to secure getting their names in the papers. Roxie is involved in an extra-marital affair with someone she believes can forward her music career (Fred Casely, played by Dominic West). When she discovers he’s just using a line on her she shoots him, and though her cuckolded husband Amos (John C Reilly) initially takes the blame, she’s eventually put on the spot and jailed for her crime. There she discovers that infamy can pay as she meets one of her key influences, cabaret star Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta Jones). Velma is in jail for murdering her sister and boyfriend when she caught them sleeping together. Both Velma and Roxie rely on the same lawyer, a flambuoyant showman by the name of Billy Flynn (Richard Gere). Roxie learns to play the public, the press, and her own husband to afford herself the best chance of escaping the death penalty, but is all the time most interested in getting her name in the papers... and from there, in lights.
The musical numbers are peppered throughout. Rob Marshall, directing his first major film here, uses the platform of Roxie’s imagination to stage the song-and-dance routines, interspersing narrative action with larger than life glam numbers. It's this that really sets Chicago apart from the stage version. On stage, the show is almost like watching a cross between vaudeville and cabaret, with a very minimal set and polished dance numbers. And that basic fact is one of the reasons people always found it hard to imagine how a film could be made of the show. Interestingly, Marshall went in to speak to the producers about Rent and happened to mention how he’d advise treating Chicago - he came out (more or less) with the Chicago gig. Personally, I think the stage-iness of Roxie’s imagination works really well, and allows the film to switch between humdrum prison uniforms and super-sparkly sequined costumes. As for whether the music is good or not, well... it’s always going to come down to preference. I’ve seen a lot of criticism for the songs of Chicago, saying they’re not memorable enough, not good enough, etc. etc. Personally, though there are some I could live without, I like them overall. I quite often find myself humming 'All That Jazz' and 'Razzle Dazzle' if nothing else. But I will admit to being an unabashed fan of musicals – maybe that helps paint my opinion on such things.
Famously, Chicago garnered itself six Oscars in the 2003 ceremony: Best Film, Best Supporting Actress, Art Direction, Sound, Costume Design and Editing. This is an indication of the reception the film received, with much critical acclaim. A lot of this is to do with Marshall’s direction, managing to make the film have a narrative structure while keeping in the musical numbers. The assembled cast do a good, solid job too. Catherine Zeta Jones impresses as Velma Kelly, a meaty role that really needed someone with a background in stage musicals such as Zeta Jones has – comparing her to Renee Zellweger as Roxie you can see who’s had the most experience. But Renee does a good job too; she may not be quite as confident with the singing and dancing, but she knows acting, and I didn’t find her as weak in the role as I'd expected to. Richard Gere gets sleazy as Billy Flynn and learned to tap dance just for his big musical number, 'Razzle Dazzle'. The role of Billy isn’t a massive one, and in the film relies more heavily on the acting side than it does on stage, but I think Gere brings the right elements of sliminess to the role and he's also had a past in stage musicals, which he obviously enjoyed returning to here. (Though I can't really visualize him in Grease... but that’s probably more my fault than his!) Queen Latifah is superbly cast as prison warder Mama Morton and she shows her range and ability in the role, and finally John C Reilly plays another put-upon man, and does so well. Amos Hart is one of the roles on stage that seems to traditionally have a lot of guest stars who aren’t necessarily known for singing. This is primarily because the song 'Mister Cellophane' doesn’t have the difficulty of many of the other numbers and involves little choreography; regardless, Reilly manages to pull it off. While surprised when I first heard the casting, I was glad to see it worked out well and gave the film an impetus it may have lacked with previous suggested casts (though I have to admit I’m extremely grateful we’ve not had to endure a version with Goldie Hawn and Madonna, which was once rumoured).
The choreography is something that should be mentioned specifically though. It’s quite a brave task to take on a Fosse musical and change the signature choreography. Here it's done quite sympathetically and there's a lot of Fosse-influence in play here. The skimpy costumes were a Fosse schtick, but work well for the glamorous imaginations of Roxie too. Numbers like 'Cell Block Tango' and 'We Both Reached for the Gun' were very reminiscent of the stage version for me; both with added oomph to reflect the bigger budget and more rounded approach you can take in a film. But for those who like the song-and-dance thing, like myself, the numbers were all sympathetically treated and allow for the film to keep the old Hollywood musical feel, while receiving a modern interpretation.
Chicago to me is a great adaptation of a stage musical for screen. Where Moulin Rouge! was unique, distinctive and rich because it was so novel, Chicago had the challenge of taking old material and bringing it to a new audience. By the acclaim it received, it was a success. But that's not to say it's everyone’s cup of tea. The musical numbers are very based on vaudeville – and if you just don’t like them, then having them in a cool setting with interesting choreography and Hollywood stars performing them won't help. Personally, I like it and think it works very well, providing a feast for both eyes and ears.
The transfer here is 1.85:1 widescreen anamorphic and it looks lovely. The rich, vibrant colours come alive and the contrasts are very good. It's very stylised, naturally, but skin tones come out natural-looking despite this. It's as good a transfer as I expected picture-wise, with only the slightest bit of noise occasionally. Any softness or sharpness between the indoor scenes and the dream/imagination sequences seem more to do with the direction and style than any problem with the transfer or image.
The audio is presented in English Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound, English DTS and English with audio description. I listened to the 5.1 mix and so I'm glad to reveal this is a good, solid transfer especially as sound quality is pretty important for a big, brassy musical like Chicago. There’s not a huge amount of rear speaker usage – though they are used to apply ambience. Stereo separation is, on the other hand, great, giving a rich tone for the musical numbers with strong dynamics. Dialogue is always clear, and there’s often background music as songs start up or conclude, so it’s quite important that the segue dialogue isn’t missed out because of this. Subtitles are provided in English and English for the Hard of Hearing for the main film and are patchy throughout the extras, with none of the extras on the first disc having subtitles and the ones on disc two only having German and Italian subtitles! This really seems a bit slipshod of the DVD production team, especially seeing as they've subtitled the main film and gone to the trouble of having an English Audio Descriptive version too!
Menus & Extras
The first disc contains mostly the same extras as the normal edition of Chicago, so it’s only on the second disc that we really begin to delve into why this is the special edition of the film. Going into the first disc, you're immediately presented with the choice of English or English Audio Descriptive – which I hope makes it to more DVDs in the future. Then we launch into the usual spam of pre-menu trailers for Goal!, Desperate Housewives: The Complete First Season, Shall We Dance? and The Aviator. When you finally do get to the main menu, you find it's a nice, glossy affair (as suits the film) with full-screen animation featuring clips and music from the film.
The main feature on disc 1 is the audio commentary by Rob Marshall (director) and Bill Condon (screenplay). It's more interesting than I thought it would be when it kicks off, but it’s not the most entertaining commentary I've listened to. In fact, it's pretty dry. And very very quiet. I had to turn the sound up quite a few times to be sure I could hear everything they were saying – and that's just wrong, especially when you forget you've done it and then move to another special feature without this disability. Ouch! Anyway, the pair talk throughout, with only a few breaks for the dialogue or singing to kick in, and they cover technical aspects, cast anecdotes, and give quite a lot of background about the show, the film and other various aspects. They're very knowledgeable, but they don’t manage to liven it up much. The commentary isn't subtitled (which may have been helpful given how quiet it is).
The first disc also includes a deleted musical number - the song 'Class' sung by Velma Kelly and Mama Morton which was cut from the film. Amusingly it's about how people have no class anymore, and includes the most condensed bad language of the film – a nice juxtaposition. But the reason it was cut was because it's the only song in the film (barring the finale, perhaps) that can't really be justified as being from Roxie's imagination, as it takes place during her trial where she can't really be expected to have thought it up. I mean, it'd be stretching belief a little too far, and in the end, that's one of the main reasons it was cut. You can find this all out by listening to the optional commentary for this extra. There are no subtitles for this segment.
The final feature on the first disc is the featurette From Stage to Screen: The History of Chicago. I found this a very interesting potted history of Chicago from initial stage play to the current film version, looking at the various stars and how the whole thing came together. With contributions from original cast members through to current crew, it's great for bringing together everything you need to know about the history of the show and the comments are generally interesting. This featurette seems to take the place of a more standard 'making of' extra on the non-special edition version of Chicago. There are no subtitles for this featurette.
Then we move onto the second disc, the raison d’être for buying this edition as opposed to the previous one, for extras junkies. After choosing from a language menu (English, Italian, German for the record), the first extra is An Intimate Look at Director Rob Marshall which runs approximately 20 mins and consists of a number of cast and crew interviews discussing working with Rob Marshall. It's a bit of a hyperbolic lovefest, and includes some interesting comments from Marshall himself. The featurette looks at Marshall’s history and explains how he got involved in the Chicago process, from going into a meeting about Rent (which is released later this year, directed by Chris Columbus) to getting the directorship of Chicago. There are clips of rehearsals which are interesting mainly for how they show Marshall's ability to keep up with all the choreography enough to show all the actors exactly what moves they should be making.
A sweet extra is Chita Rivera’s encore, which is fairly short at only 5 minutes long. Chita Rivera is a bit of a legend in musicals. She was the original Anita in West Side Story on Broadway (not in the film) and she also originated the role of Velma Kelly in Chicago on stage. And because of this, it's especially nice to see her cameo in the film version of Chicago as a prisoner who explains some of the aspects of prison life to Roxie. This short extra covers the shooting of her big scene, and while not especially exciting to the majority of viewers, I think it's a nice nod to musical fans who get the significance of the cameo.
A couple of short featurettes cover production designer John Myhre and costume designer Colleen Atwood. They're each between five and six minutes long and pretty much what you expect. Of course, production and costume design both play a large part in the style of the film. The production design is very different from the stage version of the show, which was quite stark and minimalist, and conversely the costume design has some nice nods back to the famously skimpy Fosse dance outfits. So it’s fitting that these two featurettes look at these aspects of the film process. But – I'm quite glad they're short and sweet.
The chunkiest (by time) individual featurette weighs in at just over 35 mins and is VH1 Behind the Movie: Chicago and as expected it's pretty much what it says on the tin, a decent-length overview peppered with interviews from the cast and crew and clips from rehearsals and from the final production. It explains the history of the film, the story and what it was like to film it. It's more interesting that some of these 'behind the scenes' promotional things I've seen in my time, perhaps because of the length, but maybe it’' just that Chicago has quite an interesting history!
Another sweet feature is When Liza Minelli became Roxie Hart, which starts with an explanation of the connection between Liza Minelli and the play Chicago. Basically, Gwen Verdon (the original Roxie Hart) was sick and Bob Fosse knew his show was in serious trouble, especially missing the famous star. Fosse knew Minelli well, because they’d worked together on a few projects, most notably Cabaret. When Minelli heard about the show’s problems she offered to step in for Gwen Verdon. There are some other sweet touches about how the switch wasn't advertised so as not to take any limelight away from Verdon – but this segment includes a daytime show appearance by Minelli that includes her singing a song from Chicago. It's good stuff!
The rest of the extras are musical – not surprising, and they make up a good chunk of the viewing material. But their interest to the viewer will really depend on how much you like the actual music of Chicago. There are six extended musical performances which cover 'All That Jazz', 'When You’re Good to Mama', 'Cell Block Tango', 'We Both Reached for the Gun', 'Mister Cellophane' and 'All I Care About'. I have to admit, I wasn't quite expecting these to cover quite what they did, which was the musical numbers with the occasional talk about how they were put together and some rehearsal footage, as well as multi-camera shots of the action. That's not to say I didn't enjoy it this way, it's just not how I interpreted 'extended' when I first saw it.
There's also three complete musical performances which also show rehearsals, commentary from relevant parties and the song itself. The songs showcased here are 'All I Care About Is Love', 'Nowadays' and 'All That Jazz'. There's less commentary here and the song is shown in full, just in all its incarnations. Finally, four songs are featured as musical performance rehearsals: 'I Can’t Do It Alone', 'Hot Honey Rag', 'We Both Reached for the Gun' and 'Cell Block Tango'. These show the cast rehearsing the numbers and they definitely picked the most interesting songs to showcase here.
It's interesting, the extended musical numbers and such extras were the ones I was actually most looking forward to about the special edition. However, when it came to sitting down and watching them I realized what I really wanted was just to see the songs plucked from the film or in rehearsal. I wasn't expecting the mix of commentary, rehearsal and finished version, so I had to get used to it. It's more interesting perhaps, because you get to see a lot more behind-the-scenes footage and gain more of an insight into how hard the actors and dancers had to work to get the look just right.
As you can see, I really enjoyed Chicago! I agree with Matt Day though, in his review of the non-special edition, this is very much a love-or-loathe proposition, a lot of which is going to boil down to whether or not you like the music. There are quite a lot of special features to get through here, and there's a nice mix of interesting history and anecdotes with rehearsals and deeper insight into the process and the music. It deserves the 'Special Edition' title, that’s for sure.