by Judge J. Howard Sundermann
What am I doing reviewing a
musical? I asked myself similar questions while sitting in the
theatre waiting for Chicago to start, but my wife said
that I owed her one since the last few movies we had seen took
place in either a space ship or a submarine. But, to my surprise
I liked Chicago.
The musicals I like can be counted
on one hand with several fingers left over. My criteria for
a good musical are that not only must the musical numbers be
good but the music must also help tell the story or develop a
character. Some examples are Cabaret, Man of LaMancha, or
The Sound of Music. Chicago is not as good as these,
but it works.
Chicago is set in the 1920's and is based on a Bob Fosse
stage play that first opened in 1975 and was then revived in
1996. Roxie Hart, a would be singing and dancing star, kills
a man she is having an affair with when she finds out that he
does not have the show business connections he lead her to believe
he had. In prison, Roxie meets Velma Kelly, a successful performer
who killed her sister, her dancing partner. Roxie and Velma
hire slick lawyer Billy Flynn, who has never lost a case. Flynn's
strategy is to make his clients darlings of the media (truth
is not an obstacle) and turn the town and the jury in their favor.
Flynn refers to the court as a three-ring circus and says he
can win any case with the "old razzle dazzle." Flynn
has one criterion for a new client; they must be able to come
up with $5,000.00. He says, "If Jesus Christ had lived
in Chicago, and if he'd had $5,000.00 and had come to me, things
would have turned out differently."
The use of traditional Hollywood stars, rather than singers and
dancers, was controversial in the media but I think it turned
out well. Renee Zellweger plays Roxie Hart, and captures her
vulnerability as well as her growing confidence as she becomes
a media star. The camera cuts are able to hide some lack of
dancing ability for her as well as the others. Who thought Catherine
Zeta-Jones, as Velma Kelly, could sing and dance, and who cares
when she is on the screen. But she can do both well, and her
numbers have high energy and style.
The biggest surprise is Richard Gere as Billy Flynn. He has
played a slick lawyer before, but he is also believable as a
song and dance man. Flynn is no Atticus Finch; there is a scene
where he and Roxie totally create a history for her and a story
to tell the jury. In court, neither truth or courtroom decorum
are considerations in the presentation of her defense. In one
courtroom scene, the camera goes back and forth between testimony
and the musical number "Razzle Dazzle." You get the
picture. As is all too common in modern film, the attorney is
presented as totally corrupt and only interested in winning at
any price, not just for money but also for his own fame. But,
Flynn is so over the top that he is clearly such a caricature
that no one should walk out of the film taking him seriously.
Roxie is no Mary Poppins. She accepts Flynn's suggestions, not
only to get out of a murder charge, but because she thinks it
will help make her a star. She invents a pregnancy during the
trial when it looks like things could use a lift.
Queen Latifah is terrific as the prison matron, and her version
of "When Your Good to Mama" would be a showstopper
to a live audience. John C. Reilly, a good character actor,
is perfect as Roxie's not too bright husband. If you like musicals
you will love this film, and if you don't, it's still OK.
Posted February 4, 2003