In 1975, Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb brought their musical adaptation of Maurine Dallas Watkins’s play Chicago to the Broadway stage. Overshadowed at the time by the vastly inferior Chorus Line, Chicago received retribution in 1997 when the show’s revival won six Tony Awards, including one for Walter Bobbie’s snazzy direction. The minimalist Chicago is a rarity on Broadway, a triumph of less-is-more razzle-dazzle. In the show, Chicago’s jazz-and-liquor milieu comes alive via sexy song-and-dance while Bobbie evokes a prison complex by simply confining the show’s action to the front part of the stage. Chicago tells the story of the murderous Roxie Hart and how she incurs the shame of her henpecked husband Amos and the jealousy of Velma Kelly when she turns her time in prison into a media blitzkrieg with the help of playboy lawyer Billy Flynn.
Though certainly competent, Miramax’s all-star bash Chicago must count as a disappointment of sorts. Screenwriter Bill Condon has taken pains to flesh out the relationship between killer vixens Roxie (Renée Zellweger) and Velma (Catherine Zeta-Jones) but the film lacks the sophistication, sexiness and overall allure of the Broadway revival. Bob Marshall’s direction is a critical fault here, as is the horrendous means by which the film has been spliced together. If Baz Luhrmann is incapable of holding a shot for longer than two seconds, Marshall has never even heard of a long shot, let alone an establishing one. Little care has been taken to establish the glitz and glamour of the film’s ’20s Chicago. Though the city’s hellfire is implied in the film’s songs and smoky interiors, the unusual lack of exterior shots suggests a fear on Marshall’s part to fully embrace the potential of the cinematic medium. Only once does Marshall truly bring Chicago’s contradictions to life. When the prison block’s Hungarian murderess takes a swan dive (Björk anyone?), Marshall fabulously evokes the thorny dialectic between Chicago’s many modes of spectatorship.
Because Marshall takes little pain to create a life between musical numbers, Chicago seems to plod along from one outburst to the next. Though Zeta-Jones’s singing ability is less than stellar, Velma’s “I Can’t Do It Alone” is compromised more by the sad means by which the performance (and others like it) have been cut up in the editing room. Moulin Rouge was shrill but full-bodied where Chicago is completely textureless. The integrity and rhythm of Velma’s solo tribute to duo-ship is completely lost here. “I Can’t Do It Alone,” “Cell Block Tango” and “Mr. Cellophane” are numbers that demand to be seen from a distance so that their intricate physical and emotional rhythms can be fully savored. What’s the use of having John C. Reilly sway from one side to the other as Roxy’s “look right through me” chump-husband if his full movements can’t be observed in a continuous shot?
Condon’s creative liberties are completely inoffensive and work for the most part: he takes the man out of Mary Sunshine (Christine Baranski doing her best drag queen impersonation), puts the dyke in Mama Morton (a full-bosomed Queen Latifah) and gives Velma a courtroom outburst that negotiates the musical’s weakest transition point. Curiously, it’s the film’s stagiest performance (“Roxie”) that stands out above the rest, not only because Marshall allows his camera to pull back, giving his frame some breathing room, but also because Zellweger’s performance is a revelation. The actress nails her character’s sex appeal, cattiness and naivete. In the end, Zellweger comes across as more vulnerable and, yes, even sexier than Zeta-Jones. Of the film’s major players, only Zellweger successfully carries all her tunes. A glossier palette, maybe even Scope photography, could have done wonders for Chicago. Its ultimate failure, though, is its discordant rhythm.
Buena Vista Home Entertainment presents this year’s Oscar champ in its original 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Flesh tones are great and edge enhancement is virtually nil, but the print is grainy to the point of being unflattering, especially during bluer indoor sequences. There aren’t enough supplemental materials on this disc to excuse the compression artifacts but, then again, this must have been a difficult video transfer to nail considering just how experimental the film’s lightening really is. In the sound department, there’s very little to distinguish the Dolby Digital 5.1 from the DTS 5.1 surround track. Dynamic range is good and dialogue is crystal clear on both tracks but the musical numbers didn’t quite razzle dazzle my speakers.
Hardcore fans of the film will probably go first to the deleted musical number "Class" performed by Catherine Zeta-Jones and Queen Latifah. Deleted from the film because, according to Rob Marshall, it was dishonest to Roxie’s imagination, the scene is a yet another reminder of just how poor a singer Zeta-Jones (and because there’s no dancing going on, the horror is considerably augmented). A behind-the-scenes featurette begins suspiciously as yet another quickie junket-culled promo piece (except the interviews were clearly recorded on the set of the film, judging by the actors’ clothing), only to turn more insightful once the crew gets in on the action. Besides the lively behind-the-scenes footage included here, the crew offers interesting glimpses into the history of the musical from its earliest film incarnations to the Bob Fosse Broadway show. The commentary track by director Rob Marshall and Bill Condon is so honest and insightful that even non-fans of the film might want to listen to the whole thing. Both Marshall and Condon are obvious fans of theatre. Marshall’s passionate desire to create a "concept musical" that’s in service of a big metaphor (however unsuccessful the end result) is matched only by the careful technical thought that went into Condon’s screenplay. Not surprisingly, Marshall’s favorite scene in the film is Renée Zellweger’s "Roxie" showstopper, and for all the right reasons: the scene’s expansive, minimalist presentation evokes the texture of a film rather than a musical. Marshall admits that Zellweger wasn’t the greatest dancer in the world, but both he and the actress tried to incorporate her "rough edges" into the context of the film’s story. Also included here are sneak peeks at The Duplex and Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows, the shameless Miramax New Golden Age self-promotion (which you’ve seen in various other forms on other Miramax DVDs), a SoapNet promo and a Chicago soundtrack spot.
Best Picture Oscar-winner Chicago gets a no-frills package on this DVD edition. That said, the commentary track by Marshall and Condon is a must-listen.