The problem with so many movie musicals is that most Hollywood actors simply can't sing. On Broadway, there isn't so much the star mentality that there is in Hollywood, so those with great voices who don't happen to be on the cover of People every week can still star in big productions. With a movie musical, especially a lavish one like Rob Marshall's Chicago, you need those marquee names to sell tickets. So, instead of great singers, we get Renée Zellweger, Richard Gere, and Catherine Zeta-Jones in Marshall's film, none of whom is quite what you'd call an accomplished vocalist. They do, however, do all of their own singing (and there is a whole lot of it), and although Gere at times sounds a little like that nasal nerd who hijacked the high school musical, for the most part they pull it off.
Marshall's film is, of course, based on the 1975 stage musical with lyrics by Fred Ebb and music by John Kander, and famously directed by Broadway legend Bob Fosse. The musical, in turn, was based on the 1926 play by Maurine Dallas Watkins. All of which is nice to know, but really doesn't much matter when the lights go down and the projector starts up. The question then is not, "What's its pedigree?" The question is, "Is it a good movie?"
The answer to that question is a resounding yes. The compelling story centers around Zellweger as Roxie Hart, an aspiring Vaudeville singer who's married to loser mechanic Amos (John C. Reilly), and involved with a sleazy furniture salesman who claims he can get her that big break. After a fallout with her lover, she winds up in jail. While in jail, she meets Velma Kelley (Zeta-Jones), a former Vaudeville star in for the same crime as Roxie. Velma is a media sensation, a sort of Roaring 20s O.J. Simpson, thanks mostly to her lawyer, slimy Billy Flynn (Gere). When Billy takes on Roxie's case and makes her over into the next big thing, Velma's jealous, and sparks fly.
The story's point is obvious: The media turns any sensational crime into a front-page story, and then drops its man-made celebrities when the next hot ticket comes along. Yet, Marshall and screenwriter Bill Condon use a light enough touch (and plenty of musical numbers) that the point doesn't come off as heavy-handed or belabored. And, of course, as compelling as it may be, the story plays second fiddle to the songs. Marshall stages all of the numbers as if we were watching them in the theatre. That is, they take place not within the action, but on stages (theaters, clubs, etc.) that act as windows into the characters' minds and emotions. The effect is that the story retains an element of realism even as the characters sing and dance, and it helps the story remain believable.
For all their flashiness (no doubt there will be Oscars for the sets and costumes), the musical numbers themselves sometimes feel a little flat, perhaps due to the amateur singing. But there's also no particularly memorable tune, nothing you'll be humming as you leave the theater. It almost doesn't matter, as Marshall (a Broadway veteran who also handles the choreography) stages them so elegantly that the sets and dance numbers are enough.
Chicago is ultimately not as powerful as it could have been, and it doesn't quite get beyond the feeling that it's a stage play fit onto a screen. The lead actors all acquit themselves nicely, and the supporting cast (including Queen Latifah and Christine Baranski) is solid. But no performances stand out, and while the film is mountains of fun, it ends feeling a little empty. Still, this is probably the most downright enjoyable film you'll find this awards season, and that should be enough.
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