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Scott Ventura >> Movie Commentary >> August 2003 >> Chicago
Every decade or so, a genre is declared dead. The movie musical was theoretically killed off some time in the 1960s. Some people complain that it's not realistic when characters break into song. Chicago has a brilliant gimmick that allows it to sidestep most of the verisimilitude issues with musicals: all of the songs take place only in the imagination of one character. The adaptation skips a lot of the stage show numbers in order to maintain the illusion. Sadly, the song "Class", a delightfully crude duet, was among the omitted, although it makes an appearance on the soundtrack album. The good news is that most of the other songs lost are no great loss.
One of the best things about Chicago is its attitude. This is a dark, seedy story populated with characters who only look out for themselves. It's got sex. It's got murder. It's got a prison full of women who play friendly on the surface and attack each other behind closed doors. Watching the tension between Roxie and Velma is a hoot, to put it mildly. The one character that ever thinks of anyone else is a first rate doormat, and his solo number, "Mr. Cellophane", talks about just how much of a doormat he is. In fact, one of the most appealing aspects of the story and the songs is the strength of the female characters. There isn't a pushover or love interest or damsel in distress in the plot at all, and it's a refreshing change from the standard, G- rated, goody two-shoes, romanti-comedy shlock.
Even when the plot fails to supply an out, I don't have a problem with musical numbers in terms of the believability. Even if I were the type to object, Chicago offers some of the best musical numbers I've ever seen. "We Both Reached For the Gun" recasts a press conference as a huge marionette show. The effect is stunning. "Cell Block Tango" combines skimpy costumes, sexy choreography, and a fatally infectious beat into a showstopper that supposedly had the film crew applauding between takes. Queen Latifah hams it up in "When You're Good to Mama", making use of her powerful voice and powerful stage presence. Richard Gere makes the most of his curious singing voice, bringing real character to his songs. A lot of the credit for the spectacle belongs squarely on the collective shoulders of cinematographer Dion Beebe, art director Andrew M. Stearn, and director/choreographer Rob Marshall. Their inventiveness sets a new standard.
The closest thing to disappointment I experienced watching Chicago was seeing digital effects experts in the credits. Chicago is descended from a stage musical, and its fantasy dance sequences are staged like those from a stage musical. At every step of the way, the film looked like it was done entirely with practical shots, requiring nothing at all in the post-production except perhaps some color correction. The producers make a big deal about the three cast primaries doing their own dancing and singing. Why couldn't they do everything else in real life? A bit of reeeeeesearch later, and I see that I'm almost certainly overreacting. Most of the 3D work involved recreating period Chicago without practical sets. The effects are pretty large, but with the exception of some wire work, they don't seem to have permeated the dance sequences. That would've been unforgivable.
If I haven't mentioned the cast very much, it's only because I'd be here all night saying how great they all were. There's one scene that I thought was ineptly acted, but it's only obviously ineptly acted because it's surrounded by so much great acting. Unfortunately, it's much harder for a critic to write a compelling review about a great film than it is to sling trash. I loved Chicago. I expect I'll feel a thrill every time I see it.