All That Jazz
Movies, back when they were new, were fairly disreputable — at least, the people who made them were. And theater? Forget it. Better for a gal to admit she was a prostitute than a chorus girl — hookers at least embodied the possibility of being redeemed, but the theater was in your blood, and no gettin’ it out.
All the deliciously indecent sass and bawdiness of stage and screen is bound up in this new interpretation of a story that first hit the boards in 1926 and the box office the next year, when the events it depicts were contemporaneous: cheatin’ and killin’ and gettin’ famous for it in the era of jazz and Prohibition. Choreographer and director Rob Marshall and screenwriter Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters) have given us a lusciously raunchy and defiantly un-PC film that’s both movie-movie and theater-spectacle at the same time, flush with the intimacy of film and the brashness of musical theater, as lavish as The Movies can be and as immediate as The Theater is.
Their Chicago — based on the stage musical by John Kander, Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse — is utterly singable, danceable, cheerable, with musical numbers that straddle the unwillingness of today’s movie audiences to suspend our disbelief about movie characters breaking into song unless they’re Disney lions or talking candelabra. Sensational song-and-dance routines take the form of the naive daydreams of Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger: White Oleander, Bridget Jones’s Diary), who longs to be a vaudeville showgirl and gets her fame when she murders. Her body may be locked in a cell on Murderess Row, but her imagination soars to the stage, where dames locked up for doing in their husbands and boyfriends — men who “had it coming” for crimes from gum-popping to sister-banging — stomp with rage and howl their indignity: “It was a murder but not a crime.” The “son of a bitch” Roxie did in (Dominic West: Rock Star, A Midsummer Night’s Dream) deserved it, too, which only adds to the juiciness of the defense media-hungry lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere: Unfaithful, The Mothman Prophecies) cooks up for a city with a voracious appetite for gossip, the more lascivious the better.
But Billy Flynn comes later. First there’s the crooked prison matron, Mama Morton (the luscious Queen Latifah: Brown Sugar, The Country Bears), who practically salivates at the site of the timid Roxie on her block… and belts out a lewd tune about “tit for tat” in Roxie’s terrified imagination. Then comes Velma Kelly, vaudeville superstar and murderess herself, whose stint behind bars has only sent her star soaring higher. Zellweger acquits herself surprisingly well in the all-singing-and-dancing department, but Catherine Zeta-Jones (America’s Sweethearts, Traffic) is simply walking sex as Velma, her voice a seductive growl and her movements downright animalistic.
Flicks like this one and Moulin Rouge! show that there’s enormous untapped talent even among the most familiar faces on the big screen — the feet and the voices actually belong to all the big-name actors, and the weakest among them only appear so by comparison. Gere’s voice is the shakiest — and he sings with a weird old-fashioned English accent — but he makes up for it with a kind of “Can you believe they cast me?” enthusiasm. He hasn’t been this good in probably never, his Flynn infusing the film with its black humor, manipulating the press and running his trials as a literal circus.
As frenetic and energetic as jazz itself, this Chicago couldn’t be any more relevant to today, for all that it’s set more than 70 years ago, its satirization of crime and punishment as nothing more and nothing less than an entertainment still pertinent. But it’s the cheekiness with which it dishes out the dish that keeps it fresh. If we’re on the verge of a comeback of movie musicals, let’s hope they’re all as wildly impudent and enormously entertaining as this one.
Oscars Best Picture 2002