KPBS AIRDATE: January 03, 2003
Yeah, I know I’m only supposed to review live theater. But this movie has a serious theater pedigree. And besides, it’s a knockout movie musical, and there hasn’t been a successful movie made of a stage musical since “Cabaret” in 1972. Last year’s “Moulin Rouge” revitalized the genre. And the new “Chicago” is sustaining it — in spades. Based on a 1926 play, the musical was factual, in part — the story of one Roxie Hart, a married chorine who offed her two-timing lover in Prohibition Chicago. The 1975 Kander and Ebb musical, co-written by legendary director-choreographer Bob Fosse, was a Broadway hit, and so was its 1996 revival, which is still running.
But it took 27 years for the movie to be made. And I think it was worth the wait. For a project of this scope and magnitude, there were an awful lot of novices: first-time feature director Rob Marshall, a veteran musical theater choreographer; Oscar-winning writer Bill Condon, had never written a musical. And some movie stars had never been in one: Renee Zellweger, who glitters as the impressionable, unexpectedly sympathetic Roxie, and John C. Reilly as her hopelessly invisible husband. Some stars surprise us: stunning Catherine Zeta-Jones, a killer singer and dancer as the murderous Velma Kelly, actually got her start in musical theater. Richard Gere, who plays the slick, slimy lawyer Billy Flynn, reportedly took the role because he wanted his 2-year old to see him tap dance.
Marshall and Condon enhanced the structure for the big screen. So now there’s a major divide between the reality of the cynical story and the fantasy of Roxie’s imagination, where all the fabulous songs are staged. Roxie’s got stars in her eyes; here, unlike the stage version, every number is played out surreally as a vaudeville routine: from the torch song to the Big Mama belter (done to the hilt by Queen Latifah), even a hilarious ventriloquist act. It’s a brilliant reconception — as seedy and sordid as the original, but with a decidedly filmic razzle-dazzle. Maybe these aren’t true theatrical triple-threats — actor-singer-dancers; they’re movie stars, and we love to see them shine in a new way. The direction and choreography inventively mask how little Zellweger or Gere actually move, capitalizing instead on their star power: Zeta-Jones’ tough sultriness the perfect counterpart to Zellweger’s vulnerable pout; Gere as the charming cad with the seductive twinkle in his eye. There’s more than a whiff of ‘Cabaret’ here, homage to Fosse, but it feels creative and new. In this upside-down Cinderella story, evil triumphs over good, and that’s not dusty history; think O.J. in those sleazy courtroom scenes, with all their fancy footwork. As the song goes, “How can they see with sequins in their eyes?” The movie is good to its word: Gorgeous, dazzling, irresistible. Celebrity, murder, and amorality never looked so good.
©2003 Patté Productions Inc.