View Full Version : 'Chicago' -a poor man's musical

dave durbin
02-10-2003, 06:06 PM
Bob Fosse's original stage version of Chicago with Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera turned into the stuff of Broadway legend and a strong source of inspiration for every struggling hoofer and drag queen on the east coast. It was a down-and-dirty, dark anti-musical but paled in comparison with the box-office blowout and more comfortably mainstream A Chorus Line when the two shows hit the stage in 1976; Chicago stayed in limbo for awhile -pulled out of the closet every now and then as an exciting diamond-in-the-rough for various theater groups when constructing their seasonal lineup- then made its comeback in a Tony award winning revival choreographed by Fosse's ex-girlfriend Ann Reinking and starring Bebe Neuwirth. Personally, I've always felt the story itself to be a more-desperate-than-usual attempt to bring forth some great songs and music and provide an audience with an evening's worth of entertainment yet it was made 'brilliant' by star power and acceptable word-of-mouth. This screen version starring Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones is nothing more than recycled costumes, images, and dance moves and should only inspire someone to make a musical where the editor is not the star. (Hopefully, someone will see a repeat showing of the dance play 'Contact' on Great Performances and notice how the camera hardly moves, taking in the breathtaking movements of its dancers for an exhilarating effect.) This type of material requires actors ablaze with a shoot-from-the-hip-and-take-no-prisoners style and only Chita Rivera (in a 20 second cameo) has it. The film itself lacks both the dark cynicism and zestful fun needed for Chicago to be successful; the result is similiar to those lumbering film musicals of the late sixties and early seventies -Star!, On a Clear Day, Hello Dolly!, Doctor Doolittle, Paint Your Wagon, Thoroughly Modern Millie- only with darker lighting and skimpier costumes but complete with miscasting and lackluster direction. (Actually, it's like Showgirls with singing, fan kicks, and bowler hats substituting for gang rape, lap dances, and bondage outfits.) The fact that our culture has been almost deprived of "old fashioned" musicals for almost over twenty years is the only reason I can see for the critical accolades and surprising mainstream success of Chicago; the originality of Moulin Rouge and Dancer in the Dark breathed life back into a dead genre but not a skeptical public who either loved, loathed, or refused to see these stunningly beautiful accomplishments. For some reason, they were the warm-ups and Chicago is the star.

"Keep smiling and pretend you're soldiers holding bayonets with the bodies of babies on the end." This was the type of grim direction Bob Fosse gave his cast so the characters would get under your skin and give Chicago a unique look and feel; you would not forget this play as easily as you would, say, 42 Street or Grease. That attempt to be more-than-what-it-is is what's missing in the film. Chicago still retains the clever lyrics to its songs and toe-tapping ability in its music but Rob Marshall's direction guts the chilling seediness in favor of a Fosse-like sexy hipness that never finds its own unique visual style. The opening number (All That Jazz) has all the components -a good song, a spotlight, smoky lighting, game dancers- but the editing feels rushed, jumbled, and its rhythms seem a snap off (an observation true for all the musical numbers). Actually, it looks like the filmmakers viewed Cabaret one too many times then merely spliced Willkommen with Mein Herr. The flimsy material then just buckles under the weight of the musical numbers that spit themselves out one after another, each one growing more underwhelming than the last.

Renee Zellweger is a talented actor but it's a mistake to cast her as somebody 'tough' (like here, Bridget Jones's Diary, One True Thing) and the character of Roxie needs to be inhabited by someone with the ever-so-slightly-edgy charm of a young Gwen Verdon, Shirley Maclaine, or Bernadette Peters; she has to snap, crackle and pop. Miss Zellwger never really gets a firm grasp on her and just winds up doing the job, so to speak. The same can be said of Catherine Zeta-Jones but she almost -but not quite- catches fire with her dancing and shows some range with her singing voice but she has yet to prove herself as an actor; sure there's a fire in her eyes but her speaking voice is flat and has no edge. Her talking scenes are all-too-brief -she says no more than five lines before another number shoots itself at the screen- but you can see her lack of resources as an actor: she doesn't possess the skills for either a broad characterization or a subtle, nuanced performance.

Richard Gere obviously just adores playing Billy Flynn but he's still too stiff and self-conscious to generate any heat. With the exceptions of Primal Fear and Unfaithful, his film performances have always been bland and humorless, lacking surprises and depth; he's definitley game for the challenge of Chicago but his slight striptease number leaves a viewer cold and his tap dance routine is cut too quickly to impress. For the record, Christopher Walken did the same thing in Pennies from Heaven and brought down the house with his shocking displaying of jaw-dropping talent.

Queen Latifah's vocal on 'When You're Good To Mama' sounds sensational and she's a beautiful woman who looks great in gold satin and feathers but she's a dull actor who sports a stoned hippo's grin and a mile of cleavage; she takes a background music character and does nothing with it and, along with Miss Zeta-Jones, is another one with a one-note speaking voice. As far as musical artists-turned-actors go, the First Lady of Rap is not quite as bad as Madonna, Mariah Carey, or Whitney Houston but she doesn't hold the screen the way Tina Turner in Tommy did or even -I hate to say this- Eminem in 8Mile. She makes for the most boring prison matron in the history of motion pictures -even Garrett Morris in drag showed more snap when he did his turn as a matron in the Debs Behind Bars skit on Saturday Night Live circa 1979.

The only saving grace -and worthwhile performance- is John C. Reilly as Amos: he's perfectly -brilliantly- cast and his rendition of Mister Cellophane is the only real showstopper and reason to see the film. Amos is the beating heart of the story and Mr. Reilly brings him to life almost effortlessly; he trumps the other performers without hardly ever lifting a finger and manages to break your heart by simply showing Amos's loss through posture, vocal inflection, and -most importantly- his eyes. It's a beautiful job.

All the big budgeted, Hollywood monstrosities that have made their way out of the gate this year (Chicago, Gangs of New York, Catch Me If You Can, The Road to Perdition) have been chores to sit through and it mystifies me why so many are willing to consistantly embrace mediocrity. These films are not really all that bad, but they are certainly not that good. (As far as all the desperate, masturbatory film rhetoric being posted about Chicago making a statement on our society and being a guilty politically incorrect pleasure for women, that idea borders on intellectual camp and may I suggest re-renting Coffy, Foxy Brown, Carrie, Norma Rae, Working Girl, Thelma & Louise, or Gypsy if you need some inspirational kicks.) Chicago may be the movie-of-the-moment but time will probably not be kind and cause future movie lovers to scratch their heads in bewilderment, wondering what all the fuss was about.

02-10-2003, 09:43 PM
Considering that "Chicago" has made $63.7 million as of February 9 and sit in third spot at the boxoffice, I would have to say that "Chicago" has breathed new life into the movie version of musicals. I think you are confusing musical stage plays with movie musicals. I can't imagine Sound of Music or Mary Poppins being just shot with a still camera. It's alot about the jazzy, vibrant energy. Renee was strong, strong in my mind. "Chicago" has made its impact British Academy of Film and Television Arts Awards nominate for best film and best actress for Renee (Chicago Film Critics and Screen Actors Guild), Golden Globes winner. So I'm not the only one who thinks "Chicago" is good.

dave durbin
02-11-2003, 01:35 PM
In response to the first four lines of your feedback: What?

In response to the rest: Here are examples of women who are 'strong' in my mind -Bette Davis in The Letter & All About Eve, Jane Fonda in They Shoot Horses, Don't They? & Klute, Jeanne Moreau in Eva, Diane Keaton in Reds, Kathleen Turner in The War of the Roses, Helen Mirren in the Prime Suspect series, & Janeane Garafalo in an interview. Renee Zellweger in Chicago is dust in the wind compared to these women and on her own for that matter. (FTR- her best work was in Nurse Betty.)

As far as the awards go, I think the line of dialogue that broke the ice for the creation of the SAG awards went something like this: "You know, we already have about 15 to 25 pointless awards shows as it is but,.....oh what the hell! Let's have another!"

The Chicago Film Critics? Please! The British Academy? She played their Bridget Jones for Christ's sake! Of course they love her! The Golden Globe Awards? Does anybody really think they count as an achievement of high artistic success or that they ever recovered from the laughable 'scandal' of awarding one to Pia Zadora for Butterfly?

(From Woody Allen in Annie Hall I quote: "Awards! They do nothing but give out awards! I don't believe it! Greatest Fascist Dictator: Adolf Hitler.")

It's an obvious fact that you're not the only one to like Chicago and Renee Zellweger in it and I take great comfort in knowing my taste doesn't blend with the rest of mainstream America.

02-11-2003, 06:59 PM
Dave Durban- I love that name.
Great perspective, thanks, but I saw "Chicago" quite differently.

Renee was not "tough" to me. She was vulnerable & resourceful.
"All that Jazz" reminded me of "Willkommen" & "Mein Herr" too, but I didn't mind- it was an homage to me- not a rip.

"Recycled" seems to be your theme, but I felt no recycling. Actually, recycling of Fosse might be just what we need in these ridiculous times. A little song, a little dance, a little razz-matazz, that's what this doctor ordered. I love Chicago. I hope it gets awards in all it's categories this year.

If you saw Rob Marshall's film version of "Annie", you might forgive him for ripping old shows. "Easy Street" da da da da....

dave durbin
02-11-2003, 07:29 PM
Thank you very much for your reply and thoughts and whatnot. I still have a blind spot for Chicago though; as far as viewing another movie musical goes, I think I'll just watch Fosse's All That Jazz with Roy Scheider again. Call me Mister Recycled.

02-11-2003, 07:33 PM
I LOVE Fosse. All That Jazz is an incredible experience.

Roy's line "Do you think Stanley Kubrick ever gets depressed?" is just a TINY aspect of the inferred wrath that is the "show".

02-11-2003, 11:03 PM
Nominated for Best Picture Academy Award, Chicago represents a delicious indictment of the legal system, a high energy satire on the system. It raises up women and the corruption of the prison system. It is an indictment of the media circus that can be manipulated. In this dizzying, innovative, refreshing angle of movie musical magic, the American audience gets something, consummable but with a glarying, jarring message in an big entertaining way. There is alot going on her about the abuse of women, their ability by the end of the movie to work together to become a success. The anti-american ideals clash with the singular social, tribute of female power in a man's world. (It is hard to ignore the lies and American ideal of using power and other people to get what one wants). As repulsive as the selfish, glorified trampling of people in this movie, regardless of the egoistic material ends, the dancing, the music, the singing, rang strong and pulsing to bring across to millions a story of greed, of sacrifice, of the deck of card of fools upon which some of our established institutions of America stand weakly.

dave durbin
02-12-2003, 01:47 PM
Right. Whatever.

dave durbin
02-12-2003, 01:52 PM
To Johann: What are you talking about?

02-12-2003, 09:07 PM
I think i was talking about All That Jazz. ?

Perfume V
02-13-2003, 08:47 AM
Well, I liked Chicago because it was great fun. It's not a film I can mount an impassioned intellectual defence of because it's not a particularly deep or artfully crafted film, but it held my attention until the end and I can still remember the tunes. I wish I could articulate this better, but it's not as much of a 'debate' film as, say, Spider or Adaptation.

I do, however, think you're being a bit harsh on Queen Latifah. If she appeared to inhabit her role less than Eminem in 8 Mile, it's largely because Eminem was playing Emmy McEminem going through a series of Eminem-esque situations in The Eminem Story. His lack of any major awards nominations despite intensive studio lobbying really shows how easy his performance was.

02-17-2003, 01:49 PM
I loved the recent stage version, seeing it 5 times and counting! I was so excited about the film - I went on Boxing Day in London (opening day to the public) I just could not wait. But, oh the disappointment. The staging has been done before (Sweet Charity, gentlemen Prefer Blonds, even Bugsy malone). I thought Catherine Zeta Jones was a good Velma, but Rene Zellweger - wel,, FAR TOO THIN for the period, was not impassioned enough, and Richard Gere was just plain creepy - not the sophisticated, cynical Billy Flynn I was expecting.

My favourite song 'Class' was dropped, and 'We both reached for the Gun' totally unimaginative. And I thought Bebe Neuwirth and Ute Lemper gave much better vocal performances as Velma.

This is not a bad film. It's quite good in parts, but it has been done before. The trouble is the hype. We were told that this was an imaginative staging to ensure tha modern audiences would accept a musical. But I've said it before, there was nothing new. Go see the show on Broadway or in London.

It's simply an entertaining film for a Sunday afternoon - it's not the modern masterpiece the critics said. But it's only my opinion! 6/10.

dave durbin
02-17-2003, 01:58 PM
I agree with you on Renee, Richard, and Bebe Neuwirth -I haven't heard Ute- and thank you very much for posting your opinion.

02-17-2003, 04:13 PM
While I don't agree with Chicago being a mediocre film, I loved it, I can understand some posters because I had the same reaction to the film version of "A Chorus Line" when it came out because it left some of my favorite songs out and it lost something in the translation...the snap and crackle of the original and the same goes for the film version of the British stage farce of "Noises Off." It really disappoints when one has the expectation that the film version might expand on the real live performances but it doesn't. It goes off into some other direction. It hurts and makes people anger and frustrated. I'm really glad it didn't happen to me with "Chicago" - the staged musical of "Chicago" didn't burn into my soul like "Chorus Line" did and become a personal, intimate favorite of mine.

03-14-2003, 12:04 PM
I wanted so much to join this group, because I respect everyone's opinion in it very much. I thought you were a bit wordy, Durbin, but I waded through your material. So here is mine.

I have to admit I was unfamiliar with "Chicago". I had seen "All That Jazz" and was surprised to hear at least one, maybe two of the songs being used in "Chicago". I didn't realize that "All That Jazz" had borrowed songs from "Chicago".

The thing that really struck me watching this film, was its very close resemblence to a film that paralleled it very closely, "Pennies From Heaven". This film also used the fantasy versus reality ploy to jump from a silly plot into even sillier musical numbers. Some, like the one with Christopher Walken, were down right brilliant. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, and then was surprised with the happy ending in "Chicago". It seemed out of place with the material. "Pennies" was not widely seen. People liked it in Los Angeles when it premiered there, but generally, it was panned. It's ending was far from 'happy'.

While some of the performances were a stand-out, like Jones, who seems to have been denied a major-role Oscar, versus Zellwinger, who merely walked through and lip synched her part. Queen's number was a show stopper. I also liked "Celophane Man".

The movie I think should be best picture won't even get two votes, so I won't even mention it. We should put "Chicago" in the catagory of film musicals like "Hair", that have the spirit of the play, but not the guts.

03-19-2003, 02:15 AM
I'm with Durbin on this one. Though I'm from Chicago, out Critics Awards are hard to take seriously (we have Roger Ebert after all).

But I will say that Pia Zadora was actually pretty good in "Butterfly". She blew her cred on "The Lonely Lady" though....

dave durbin
03-19-2003, 09:07 AM
And she did do a mean cover of "The Clapping Song" on her first album years ago. ; )