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CHICAGO
The Razzle Dazzle Edition

Review by Mark Wiechman

Stars:  Renee Zellweger, Richard Gere, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Queen Latifah, John C. Reilley, Lucy Liu
Audio:  DTS, Dolby 5.1 and 2.0
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Director:  Rob Marshall
Features:  See Review
Studio:  Miramax
Length:  113 minutes
Release Date: December 20, 2005

“When you’re good to mama, mama’s good to you…”

Film ****

Stage musicals don’t always work as movies.  Simply filming the musical as it is normally performed does not work because the electricity of the live performance is lost.  Making big changes to a successful musical when making it into a movie is messing with success and that rarely works either.  Bringing in new stars is also chancy, let alone an untested director.  The only way to make it work is to combine movie magic with musical magic that fires on all cylinders, and once in a while it all works.  Chicago does just that.

Director Rob Marshall, who was lavishly thanked and praised by his stars on Oscar night, got it all right.  He took most of the legendary Bob Fosse’s choreography, combined it with first-rate musical performances, and brought a cynical, sexy, and exciting show to life in what will surely be the definitive production.  The point of the story seems to be that everyone has to have their own act together in their own way.  It is hard to believe that jazz and gin were once seen as harbingers of the end of the world, but it definitely seemed fun!

He had it coming…he had it coming…he only had himself to blame…

I hesitate to tell too much of the story because it will spoil the movie (that, or I’m just lazy).   The essential story is this:  Velma Kelly (Zeta-Jones) is a nightclub sensation who is imprisoned for killing her husband after she catches him doing the "spread-eagle" with her sister.  Roxie Hart (Zellweger) is a show-biz wannabe who kills her boyfriend when she discovers he is married.  Her sappy but sweet husband (Reilly) believes her and hires a slick attorney (Gere) to defend her.  The women end up on the same "murderer's row" in prison under the watchful eye of Mama (Latifah).  They compete for public sympathy as they consider whether to be friends or enemies.

Understandable, understandable, yes it's perfectly understandable…

Several highlights include Richard Gere actually enjoying himself, singing and tap-dancing like a pro (who knew?), Queen Latifah showing her singing and acting chops, and Catherine Zeta-Jones finally getting her Oscar and her due as a true modern legend.  

Director Rob Marshall (what a perfect name for a movie director) says in the commentary that "Roxie" was the big movie number with its incredible mirror effects and Zellweger shining in a way that is bawdy and sophisticated at the same time ("I started fooling around, then screwing around…which is fooling around without dinner").  The most arousing number is definitely "Cell Block Tango" which is shot at a different camera speed which emphasizes the excitement and features rapidly changing camera angles, which of course, are impossible in theatre.  But the crowning moment of the whole film to me was John C. Reilly as Amos Hart singing “Mr. Cellophane”.  Every note is pure, his makeup and dance are perfect, and he almost steals the show from the ladies even though his character was truly transparent until he sings his song.  Bravo!  Where is his Oscar?

Many viewers have compared this movie to Moulin Rouge, which is really not fair because Chicago was already a legendary show, whereas Moulin Rouge took existing music and reworked it with plenty of special effects.  Rouge practically created a new genre but took an almost sci-fi approach to production (visually and musically), whereas Chicago is a movie version which fulfills the potential of a great musical.  They are similar but to look at them the same way is ignorant and to suggest that you can like one but not the other is like suggesting that you cannot like apples and oranges, too.

And I can't let my review end without saying that Renee and Catherine look great, thank you very much!

Video ***

Parts of the film are the crispest I have seen, but then in both daytime and dark scenes, the picture turns splotchy.  I watched it on my regular DVD player and my PC also, and it is the crispest transfer I have seen most of the time, but then in the dark cell block of Velma's "act of desperation"  the background looks pasted together. 

Audio ****

The DTS is especially thumpy and the mix is perfect, especially in the Cell Block Tango number in which we can clearly hear the band, the singers, and the narration.  The original theatrical release deserved an Oscar for sound and the transfer to 5.1 worked perfectly. 

Features ****

The important special features on the original release are here as well: director's commentary and deleted scene "Class."  The second disc contains most of the new features and earns an extra star.  The "Behind the Scenes" featurette has been re-made into the extended scenes featurettes on this version.  While many of the featurettes are the usual mutual admiration society drivel, we do learn a great deal about why the film worked.  And of course most if not all of the mutual admiration is well-deserved.

The only new feature on the first disc is From Stage to Screen: The History of Chicago which is very interesting because it shows clips of the original play, which became the musical.  The original show is exciting but looks so small on TV and shows how most musicals do not work in movie form.  Apparently Miramax had the rights to the musical for years, and probably would never have been made at all if not for Rob Marshall (more on that below.) The best part of this feature is an interview with the late Jerry Orbach, who played Billy Flynn in the original Broadway show.  He points out that the original promotion was not a big hit because it opened just after A Chorus Line and because it was such a dark story with such provocative choreography from Bob Fosse.  (Of course, the movie version of that production had problems, and Chicago on film was a hit from the start.)

The extended performances are only slightly "extended," there are multiple angles showing rehearsal footage, views from behind the camera, and the making of each number.  For instance, we see both Catherine and Renee sing the same "Jaaaaaaz!" syllable, which in the finished movie is merged so that Renee sings that one syllable.  These are probably only interesting to the most rabid fan. 

There is extensive footage and narration of Renee learning "Nowadays."  It turns out she had very little experience singing and Rob Marshall actually auditioned her at the Four Seasons restaurant.  Studio footage shows the slow but successful process of learning the tune, but "Start to Finish" is just a catchphrase, the song is never played start to finish.  These are merely "Behind the Music" moments, nothing more.

The rehearsal footage is more interesting because we meet many of the choreographers and dancers, who discuss how they kept the Fosse inspiration but made it original to this production.  Tons of rehearsal went into these as well. 

We also learn that the legendary Chita Rivera, the original Velma Kelly, was one of the cell block women who speaks to Renee when she first comes to the joint, and talks about the original Broadway production.  She had to move around with cell bars having to stay in certain positions, and marveled at how this movie had real bars.  Rob Marshall mentioned how nice it was to have her present to more or less give the production her own stamp of approval.  She was thrilled to be a part of this production and inspired the cast, especially the dancers.  Her only regret was that she only had to do her one part, and that's all, instead of staying for the whole production or actually doing the show every night. 

For some reason the piece about bringing Liza Minnelli into the show on Broadway has less than half the volume level of the other pieces.  It really has nothing to do with the movie but is interesting anyway.  Apparently Liza insisted that there be no advance notice, only an announcement each night that she was in the role.  Liza is shown on the Dinah Shore show with Chita unexpectedly showing up and singing "Nowadays" with her.  Probably this is only fascinating to more serious fans. 

Though short, two other featurettes are very worthwhile because they were both about Oscar winners, neither of whom had worked on musicals before. Production Designer John Myhre is fun and enthusiastic as he shows us around the sets and Costume Designer Colleen Atwood is praised by her co-workers as having excellent taste and not being afraid to go beyond what was done in the original musical.

The VH1 Behind the Movie has the usual overblown superlatives but does reveal interesting footage such as Zeta-Jones dancing on British television.  The "Intimate Look at Rob Marshall" was better than I expected, largely because the original composers of Chicago knew him well, and even though he had never directed a film before, everyone praised his ability to make everyone feel safe and comfortable on set.  He had done choreography for several Disney Television specials and admitted that when he did shows before, he envisioned them on TV or film without actually doing the step of directing them to that end. 

I was disappointed that the original release did not have a commentary track from the stars, and that is still absent, but they do several brief interviews which serve the same purpose.

Summary:

The roaring twenties, or the new millennium?  A timeless musical is brought to life using modern cinematography starring Hollywood's top talents.  Picture of the year?  You bet!  DVD of the year?  Not quite, but still a must for any collection.

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