Tim Robey reviewed the film for The Telegraph when it first came out in December 2002. He enjoyed the razzle-dazzle of the performances and lecherousness of the characters, dripping with sleaze, yet notes the obvious difficulties with adapting a beloved musical to the film format. Come and judge for yourself when we screen the movie on Monday at Citi Pond's Winter Film Fest. The music is sure to make some excellent background music to skate to. And all that jazz...
By Tim Robey
December 27, 2002
It's taken a three-step tango for us to welcome back the movie musical as a form. Alan Parker's grandiose but failed Evita nudged the door ajar; Baz Luhrmann's wildly uneven Moulin Rouge flung it wide open; and now the satisfyingly straightforward, professionally polished Chicago steps triumphantly through.
Make no mistake, Rob Marshall's film is much the best of the three, and arguably the most enjoyable
picture of its kind since Bob Fosse's Cabaret in 1972.
That's not to say it's perfect. Marshall - like Fosse, a choreographer turned director, who worked on Sam Mendes's revival of Cabaret on Broadway - does a very snazzy job putting this long-running Kander and Ebb spectacular up on screen and making it feel like a proper movie. But he's hamstrung to some degree by the heartlessness of the show itself.
I've never seen it on stage, but in this admittedly trimmed-down form, and for all its razzle-dazzle, it struck me as cold and brittle, a dyspeptic satire on the fickleness of celebrity that jerks its characters to and fro like marionettes from a yard-arm.
Look at Roxie Hart, the character loosely based on a real-life Cook County murderess whose trial entered showbusiness legend in the 1920s. As Renee Zellweger plays her, in what, at least to begin with, is quite the slinkiest performance by an actress since Michelle Pfeiffer made whoopee in The Fabulous Baker Boys, she's a deluded ingenue whose innocence gets leached away bit by bit.
Far from letting us root for Roxie, the movie gradually sculpts her into something waxy and inhuman, a wannabe starlet with her greedy little eyes constantly peeled for the spotlight.
Kander and Ebb get an All About Eve-type rivalry brewing between Roxie and Velma (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the vaudeville queen whose star begins its descent just as Roxie's enters the firmament.
It's a decorative sort of role, but Zeta-Jones has a lot of vampish fun with it. And more: proposing a double-act in I Can't Do It Alone, she projects an eager desperation to perform that's both ballsy and rather touching.
This Chicago makes the most prolific use it possibly can out of one specific advantage the cinema has over the stage when it comes to song and dance: it's a sustained orgy of parallel montage.
Virtually every number, from the stonking opener All That Jazz onwards, intercuts staged routines with off-stage story scenes working in tandem - an ingenious ploy by Marshall and scenarist Bill Condon that means none of the set-pieces is ever caught interrupting the overall flow.
The best of these, and Richard Gere's top moment as publicity-hungry defence lawyer Billy Flynn, imagines Flynn's pre-trial press conference as a ventriloquist's act with a rouged Roxie sitting on his lap: a choreographic tour de force that's ridiculous fun to watch.
Queen Latifah, as jail matron Mama Morton, and John C Reilly, as Roxie's nebbishy cuckold of a husband, have one solo turn each: When You're Good to Mama, and the superb Mr Cellophane, both so good you wish these able and well-cast performers weren't largely sidelined for the rest of it.
Whatever one's qualms about the material, its execution here is rock solid in ways that keep on impressing, right through to the niftiest end credits sequence in years. The liquor- and jazz-fuelled hedonistic rush of Marshall's film may leave a sour aftertaste come the final reel, but he isn't above reminding you, as each cast member flashes up onscreen for their curtain call, what a sleazy good time you've had with it.
Citi Pond Winter Film Festival