Many readers will no doubt have seen Chicago performed on stage somewhere in the world. Maurine Dallas Watkins, court reporter for the Chicago Tribune, was inspired by the criminal trials she witnessed in Cook County to write a play called The Brave Little Woman, which was performed to rave reviews in 1926. Two film adaptations followed, Chicago, a silent film released in 1927, and Roxie Hart, released in 1942 starring Ginger Rogers. Watkins’s tale of murder, seduction and media manipulation endured and was adapted in 1975 by Broadway veterans John Kander, Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse into Chicago, the musical.
Kander, Ebb and Fosse were no strangers to using melody, lyrics and choreography to enhance the universality of a play. As a team they had produced Cabaret (1972). John Kander and Fred Ebb (Fosse died in 1987) continued to collaborate over the years, producing Love! Valour! Compassion! in 1997.
Rob Marshall is a choreographer and stage director whose only prior film- directing experience was limited to made-for-TV. He also co-directed and choreographed the Broadway revival of Cabaret with Sam Mendes in 1998. Marshall won the National Board of Review Award for Best Debut Director for Chicago.
The problem with bringing a musical to the screen is that many people know the story and have high expectations of the production. Marshall says he wanted to transform the musical into the surreal, imaginary projections of the protagonist, Roxie Hart, set against the reality of a Prohibition-era Chicago. One of the problems with Chicago the film is that the plot is so thin. Cameron John Mitchell very ably showed us in Hedwig And The Angry Inch that you can tell a story as well as sing and dance. Even Moulin Rouge had a reasonable plot line to sustain the viewer. Chicago has no hard edges so, if you’ve seen the original musical, the film pales in comparison. Maybe Marshall was more than a little hindered by the 10 producers, including Bob and Harvey Weinstein, on the set during the eight years it took him to bring the musical to the screen.
Chicago is all razzle dazzle, flappers and spats. It looks fantastic but at times seems oddly low budget, with small sets. Whilst the choreography is polished and the singing good, Catherine Zeta-Jones steals the show as Velma Kelly. Zeta-Jones started on the stage and it shows. She revels in the lights and the action and provides pouting, sumptuous eye candy throughout the film. Queen Latifah, as Matron Mama Morton, isn’t bad either as she shakes her prodigious booty across the stage. Richard Gere, the sub for John Travolta on Grease, sings, dances and exudes sleaze and deserves his Golden Globe. But to my eye Renee Zellweger is no award winner she’s the weakest link. Way too thin for a flapper in the 20s and with no previous singing or dancing experience, Renee at times looks out of place. Lucy Liu and Mya have 60-second cameo appearances, so make sure you don’t blink or you’ll miss them.
Australia’s very own Dion Beebe provides the cinematography and he has come a long way, via Praise and Charlotte Gray, since he made his debut in 1992 on Alison Maclean’s Jesus’ Son (Crush).
Overall, Chicago is pure entertainment, a new interpretation of an often-interpreted story -“ a story which still has resonance more than 70 years since it was first written.