In 20s Chicago the art of celebrity is beginning to take shape, the masses flock to nightclubs - despite being in the throws of prohibition - to see the hottest stars, and Velma (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Veronica Kelley’s sister act is one of the hottest tickets in town. Unfortunately for Velma she’s just been arrested for murder, of her sister, which you’d think would put a wrinkle or two in her career plans, but not if hotshot lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) has anything to do with it. His patented art of distraction turns the legal process into a three ring circus, making sure every potential juror has been saturated with the media’s interpretation of the facts - cunningly manipulated by him of course - before they ever have a chance to set foot in a courtroom. Flynn has never lost a case, and with his undivided attention Velma is pretty sure he’s not about to start now.
Disappointingly for Kelley her number one fan, and wannabe stage star, Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger), also seems to be in some homicide-related hot water after dispatching the man with whom she was having an affair. With the help of Mama (Queen Latifa), the matron of the women’s cell block at Cook County Jail, Roxie recruits Flynn for herself, forcing Velma out of both Billy’s attentions, and far worse, the media spotlight.
Chicago is a throwback to the musicals of old, despite the alleged ‘reinvention’ of the genre with Moulin Rouge the next big screen musical we see is as old school as they come. None of the original jazz numbers have been remixed by Fat Boy Slim, the directing reigns haven’t been given to an up and coming music video creator, this is straight off of Broadway and onto your screens.
It’s a production with a lot of history, despite the obvious relevance of the story to today’s audiences to whom celebrity’s lives often seem more important than their own, Chicago is much older than you may have thought. When written it was not a period piece, the original play the musical was based on was first performed in the late 20’s as a satire on the then rampant media manipulation. It would probably disappoint the writer to know that such practices are just a prevalent today, if not more so.
The three stars were all unproven musical talents when they were cast, but then it is rather difficult to find a star experienced in the genre these days, and there was much speculation over their abilities, or possible lack thereof.
By far the best performer turns out to be Catherine Zeta-Jones, which is unsurprising when you discover she had a long history in musical theatre before she was discovered, and she handles both the singing and dancing with aplomb, though it would be generous to say she deserved an Oscar for her performance as her off-stage act is far less impressive. Zellweger, despite her well publicised reservations about performing in front of a live audience at the Academy Awards, also handles herself very well. She’s certainly a very good singer and her schooldays spent as a cheerleader have clearly made picking up the dance moves much easier. Richard Gere turns out to be the worst of the three, despite getting to grips with the dancing he has a voice only John Travolta would envy, he’s far from a natural talent, with his performance more likely to invoke cringes rather than cheers. It’s a shame as his dramatic performance far outstrips that of his female co-stars, and he is the embodiment of Billy Flynn, a natural charmer able to keep any audience hanging on his every word. However the real acting honours go to none of the headline stars, by far the most striking cast member is John C. Reilly, who plays Roxie’s downtrodden husband. He slips effortlessly into the role of the doting husband who discovers his wife’s betrayal in the worst possible manner, and then becomes as much of a pawn in Flynn’s manipulations as the media themselves. His is the only role truly worthy of any awards, and his performance of the song Sellophane is one of the most memorable of the film. Which brings us nicely to the music.
You can’t please all of the people all of the time, and that is never been more relevant than in the world of the musical, for everyone who raves about it, there’ll be half a dozen detractors. I think it’s safe to say that the younger you are the less likely you are to both watch, and enjoy the film, not to say it’s a bad film, but even though I found myself enjoying much of Chicago there were a number of songs that really irritated. This was sometimes down to the performers (stand up Mr. Gere) but I doubt anyone could have made me really enjoy the songs, Queen Latifa for example is the only cast member with a professional musical career yet I found her song ‘Mama’s Good to You’ amongst the worst of the film. The songs are all far too bland for my liking, and they contain none of the ingenuity of the stunning Moulin Rouge, these are all big, bold showtunes, for a theatre loving audience.
On a more positive note director Rob Marshall’s decision to stage the songs largely as products of the Roxie’s imagination rather than the genre staple of everyone bursting into spontaneous, choreographed, logic-defying song and dance routines is a wise choice. Many of them occur only in Roxie’s mind, like an honest commentary on the calculated proceedings of the ‘real’ world. Think of it like Ally McBeal’s oft used ‘backing music’ device and you’re halfway there, and it allows Marshall to stay true to the musical roots and still tell a story that you can believe in.
The look of the film is also fantastic, it may be conforming to every stereotype of 20’s America but it does so with amazing style. Both the costumes and the set designs have been meticulously crafted to capture the feel of the times, then glamorised and stripped of every hint of the depression – it’s Road to Perdition’s sensational cousin.
Despite all the positives though, I found it impossible to really enjoy Chicago. Too much of the music was not to my taste, Mama’s Good To You and Razzle Dazzle both proving supremely annoying, and the film is without a single song that I’d love to listen to again. They’re no doubt catchy, Roxie and All That Jazz have proved particularly difficult to shake from my head, despite my dislike for them, but by keeping the songs as retro as the settings Chicago has clearly defined its target audience as an older generation. Both its box office takings and the awards lavished upon it prove how well it has hit that target, with the majority of the Academy’s voters fitting well into an age bracket that grew up with big screen Rogers and Hammerstein adaptations, it is no surprise the film has captured their hearts. Chicago is truly the kind of film they don’t make any more, but for me was a witty, well performed satire, ruined by the music.
The film is shot in such a dazzling manner it really needed a lot of love put into the transfer, and for the most part Miramax have provided it. The image is rich and colourful, with contrast levels to die for, backlit players have vivid halos and jet black silhouettes, fire engine red lipsticks leap off white faces and sparkling costumes never see a drop in detail, no matter how fast the dancers twirl. There are problems though, jazz clubs are notoriously smoky places, and smoke is not a friend of DVD compression. Whenever a waft billows up from the stage the sharpness fades, the detail level drops and everything feels a bit grainy. No doubt such scenes are taxing on the technology, but it lets down an otherwise excellent transfer with artifacts that are often very distracting, and the problems were only intensified when the film was watched on a PC where these difficult scenes became an ugly mess of artifacts.
Miramax have provided both a Dolby Digital 5.1 and a DTS 5.1 track which is pleasing as you’d expect the best sound possible for a musical. It is therefore disappointing to see that the DTS track is only half-rate, especially when taking into account there is more than enough space on the disc for a full rate track to be accommodated. DTS sceptics have often accused the format of simply being a louder encoding of the same source, giving a perceived improvement due to the extra volume. Chicago does little to disprove that theory, as switching between the tracks offers a substantial rise in volume, but there seem to be rather few other differences. The DTS track does have a slight edge on the deeper bass lines, but the difference is marginal.
Whichever track you choose though you will be presented with an excellent show, at least during the musical numbers, where all your speakers will get a thorough workout. Outside of the music though the track is rather unimpressive, with very limited use of the surround capabilities. There are some nice rear effects used during the club and press conference scenes but these are quickly drowned out as the singing starts up.
Also, unusually, there is a Dolby Digital stereo soundtrack that provides Audio Description for the visually impaired, which I’m sure will be welcome news for many and must be a better use of disc space than having a range of Eastern European languages.
Behind the Scenes Special
This documentary, running for just under half an hour, starts in the usually dreary promotional way, with all the participants gushing praise upon their colleagues, the perfect casting, and how smoothly production went. Luckily after they are through with that it turns into a reasonable look at Chicago’s history, from the original play through it various incarnations, as well as providing some revealing rehearsal footage.
Deleted Musical Number “Class”
This song was removed from the film because it was considered rather racy, and Marshall voices his disappointment at having had to cut it, but the scene looks rather unimpressive alongside the elaborate dance numbers. It consists of Velma and Mama singing about the lack of class of people ‘these days'. It would have fitted into the film as they listened to Roxie’s trial on the radio in Mama’s office, and ironically uses the most coarse language in the movie. The scene can also be watched with commentary from the Director and Screenwriter.
Audio Commentary with Director Rob Marshall and Screenwriter Bill Condon
The first thing that struck me about this commentary was how quiet it was, at regular listening volumes you really have to strain to hear them, but beware of increasing the volume too much as when they stop talking the regular soundtrack kicks back in at a startling volume, which doesn’t make for comfortable viewing. The two participants, whilst obviously knowledgeable on the film, provide one of the least interesting commentaries I’ve listened to of late. Perhaps the problem is their depth of knowledge on the subject, as they discuss everything in far too much detail to be entertaining. This would have really benefited from having one of the cast members on board to liven things up and let them know when they were being boring. Certainly not a commentary you’ll listen to twice, and probably not one you’ll listen to once.
The disc also contins trailers for The Hours, Frida and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, which play when the disc is inserted and are not accessable through any of the menus.
Chicago is very much a love it or loathe it proposition, and if you’re yet to sample the soundtrack then I would strongly recommend renting this first as, despite a clever script and strong performances, if the music doesn’t agree with you Chicago will be nigh on unwatchable. This occasional picture problems spoil an otherwise excellent transfer, but I did expect more in the way of extras considering the success of the film. It may have won enough awards to fill plenty of mantelpieces but the DVD will be meeting with no such praise.