Picturing Justice, the On-Line Journal of Law and Popular Culture

Judge J. Howard Sundermann, Jr.
First Appellate District of Ohio


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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.

Feature article


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

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