Read an alternative review by Matt Day (Region 2 DVD)
Musicals aren't to everyone's taste. They're stylised and formulaic and you either go to appreciate the singing and dancing or you get annoyed that the actors keep breaking into song. If you're in the latter category, skip Chicago because there are no concessions for you here. This is a proper Broadway show which consists of roughly two thirds music and has no contributions from Elton John. Everyone else is in for a treat.
The musical was one of Hollywood's most popular genres until the early 1970s, when it was killed by a string of expensive flops like Hello Dolly and Paint Your Wagon. Despite a few aborted attempts to revive it in the 70s and 80s, by the 1990s the genre survived only in animation. Steven Spielberg and James L Brooks took the songs out of Hook and I'll Do Anything, proposed films of Phantom Of The Opera and Les Miserables never happened and the only major live action musical that did get made, Evita, was a big disappointment, its energy and wit crushed by a director who seemed to think he was filming a royal funeral.
Then last year there was Moulin Rouge. Some loved it, others felt assaulted by it. I admired Baz Luhrmann's talent while cringing at the cast's mugging and a directing style which made Charlie's Angels look restrained by comparison. There are those who say it works better on the small screen and I'll give it another chance one day, when the headache from my first viewing has died down. But, whatever your feelings about it, the film's success did more to breathe life back into the genre than any film in years.
In a way, Chicago is the opposite of Moulin Rouge. While Luhrmann took an old-fashioned love story and camped it up, Broadway veteran Rob Marshall, making his feature film debut, takes a brazen black comedy and serves it straight. Make no mistake, this is a long way from The Sound Of Music. The original 1970s musical Chicago was written by John Kander and Fred Ebb and staged by legendary choreographer Bob Fosse, the team behind the ground-breaking Cabaret, and it's an ambitious, richly cynical satire on justice, celebrity and the media which is as relevant as it is entertaining - and it's as entertaining as any film I saw in 2002.
In the 1920s, the time of jazz and prohibition, Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) is an unhappy, stagestruck housewife having a sleazy affair with a furniture salesman who claims he can get her into showbusiness. When he dumps her and admits he lied to get into her pants, Roxie shoots him dead. Arrested and charged with capital murder, she convinces her doormat of a husband (John C Reilly) to hire the city's best lawyer, a slick media manipulator called Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), who puts her on the front pages of all the papers with a sob story that he hopes will sway the jury and she hopes will make her a star. Meanwhile, in the murder wing of the city jail, she makes an enemy of Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta Jones), a well-known dancer who's also in jail for murder and resents this unknown bimbo stealing her publicity. Roxie may be the hottest story in Chicago but she's also on trial for her life - will she end up swinging on a stage or from the gallows?
This is a film which depends on its performers and the three leads have never been better. As Roxie, Renee Zellweger is a revelation. Famous for playing mousy singletons in Jerry Maguire and Bridget Jones, she tears into the part of a greedy, lying murderess with gusto and Catherine Zeta-Jones, who once played David Jason's darling daughter, matches her as hardened vamp Velma. Richard Gere is always at his best when he lets his hair down and he's a riot here, especially taking centre stage in the courtroom climax. All three stars carry off the singing and dancing effortlessly and they make you reflect on what a pool of talent there is in Hollywood today and how rarely it's taken full advantage of. Out of an excellent supporting cast, the standouts are John C Reilly as the loyal but dense husband, Queen Latifah as the corrupt prison warden and Lucy Liu, who has a great scene which I won't spoil.
Working from a witty adaptation by Bill Condon, Rob Marshall directs with style and a light touch. The film clocks in at 113 minutes, remarkably flab-free for a musical (or a modern blockbuster of any description!) and it looks amazing. As for the music, if you enjoy show tunes you'll want the soundtrack. My favourite number? The immaculately performed, flat-out funny "Jailhouse tango".
I realise I've been gushing like Paul Ross reviewing his childrens' nativity play but I love a good musical and not since Little Shop Of Horrors has there been one as entertaining as this. Unless you absolutely, categorically hate anything with singing in it, do yourself a favour and sample one of cinema's rarest pleasures.