Rob Marshall’s Chicago (2002) is the big screen musical adaptation of Broadway’s stunning smash hit co-written by legendary song and dance man, Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb. More directly, the inspiration for that musical came from a little known non-musical classic starring Ginger Rogers – Roxie Hart (1942); an all together more satisfying adaptation available from Fox Home Entertainment.
Set during the rum-running twenties, Chicago is bawdy, gaudy and relentlessly showy in a rather obvious and distracting way that Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge (2001) is not. But Chicago really plays more like a pop opera than a traditional musical and that's part of its problem. We get style plus but without so much as a hint of substance. The score tumbles forth, one song upon the next with only the most superficial bits of dialogue to loosely connect the story from one vignette to the next.
All of this would, of course, be quite forgivable if the characters had something meaningful to say in a cinematic way. Regrettably, Dion Beebe's cinematography is all about preserving the play's origins. As such, Chicago isn't so much a movie but a faithful recreation of 'the show' as seen on Broadway. Bill Condon’s screenplay musters up the flashy musical sequences with relative ease. But the numbers are just that - showstoppers shot with a heavy-handed music video-esque approach that leaves everything stage bound.
The plot only superficially follows the real life exploits of two murderesses; Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta Jones-Douglas) and Roxie Hart (Rene Zellweger). Both are awaiting their fate on death row.Velma is more mercenary; Roxie is a sadist. Velma murdered her husband and her sister because they were having an affair. The revenge – it seems – was sweet. But Roxie assassinated her boyfriend simply because she learned that he had no intention of making her a star…and Roxie needs to be a star. If nothing else, her splashy trial is destined to transform her reputation into notorious celebrity.
Enter Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) a cocky lawyer who promises to make it all go away – but not before he exploits the trial to establish a name and a career for himself. Electrifying musical numbers rock this rather flat narrative; bumping and grinding out something of a haughty good time – particularly Queen Latifa’s prison matron Mama Morton crowing ‘just be good to mama!’
To be certain, Chicago is brash and bold. But the film is like a pony put out to pasture, then repainted after the circus has already left town. It has its’ moments and offers a showcase of star talent performing some fairly impressive routines. Richard Gere’s superbly rendered court room ‘tap dance’ comes immediately to mind. Yet, the songs and dances are unable to sustain the story. The vignettes, though sultry and saucy to the point of distraction, are just that – vignettes, instead of charting a straight line between beginning and final fade out; begging the question – Is this really the Best Picture of 2002?!?
Buena Vista's Blu-ray release rectifies the shoddy treatment Chicago received on DVD. Grain structure has at last been accurately preserved in 1080p. On the DVD it tended to lock up or look gritty and digitally harsh. But the Blu-ray gives us a dense patina of grain that is quite natural. Colors are well balanced and fully saturated. Flesh tones still look a tad too pinkish and flat for me. But fine detail takes a quantum leap forward, even during the darkly lit scenes. Edge enhancement, that was also a problem on DVD is gone on the Blu-ray.
The audio is 5.1 DTS that is aggressive. When Chicago had its initial release back in 2003 extras were slim pickin's indeed. But in 2005 we were given the 'Razzle Dazzle Edition' and its these extras - most of them anyway - that have found their way to Blu-ray. Director Rob Marshall delivers a rather comprehensive audio commentary. We also get 6 deleted scenes, outtakes and one complete song - 'Class' - cut from the movie before its premiere. There are also 5 rehearsal performances from the voice recording and choreography sessions.
Best extra is the 27 min. 'History of Chicago' that skips through the creation of the Broadway show that actually flopped in 1975 before Bob Fosse gave it a complete overhaul. Four vintage featurettes about the film follow with cast, crew and director Marshall affectionately waxing about their participation on the project. There's also a vintage piece from the Dinah Shore Show featuring Liza Minnelli singing Nowadays. Minnelli stepped into Gwen Verdon's shoes on Broadway after the latter swallowed a feather and developed a throat infection.
I have to say I enjoyed the extras much more than I did the movie which, upon renewed viewing, I still tend to find heavy-handed and fairly dull in spots. The extras raised my appreciation for the material, but not the movie. The Blu-ray is a class act, however, and will surely delight those who love the movie. For that reason, this disc comes highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)