8 out of 10
Owner Of A Black, Black Hart
All the world's a stage in this larger-than-life, high energy musical version of journalist and writer Maurine Dallas Watkins 1927 play. A parody of the sensationalist, subjective and manipulative nature of show business, journalism and the justice system, "Chicago" is one of the longest running musicals in US history. Adapted for Broadway by the team of John Kander and Fred Ebb (known for "New York, New York" and "Cabaret"), it includes ostentatious choreography by the infamous Bob Fosse who purchased the rights following Watkins death in 1969. After running for 172 performances in the 1970's, starring Fosse's girlfriend Gwen Verdon, Liza Minnelli, Chita Rivera (who appears here as inmate Nickie) and Jerry Orbach in a part that stood him in good stead for "Law & Order," it re-opened in 1996 for a currently unbroken return on the US stage.
This new version, written for the big screen by Bill Condon ("Kinsey," "Gods and Monsters") and directed by Broadway choreographer Rob Marshall ("Annie," "Memoirs of a Geisha") is as lively and enthralling as a night out at the theatre and includes special effects on par with "Moulin Rouge," which give it an added dimension and impact. With 73 dancers and 6 acrobats, the sheer scale of this spectacular is reminiscent of the days of Busby Berkeley and, with musical numbers such as "When You're Good To Mama" and "We Both Reached For the Gun," it was almost guaranteed the Grammy and sound awards it later won.
Based on real life murder trials of Belva Gaertner and Beulah Annan covered by Maurine Watkins when working as a journalist for the Chicago Tribune, Roxie Hart returns to the big screen a third time, this time portrayed by Renee Zellweger. Previously played by Ginger Rogers in 1942 and Phyllis Haver in 1927, this starry-eyed jazz-loving chorus girl, bored with her life as a housewife, falls for Fred Cassely, a married furniture salesman pretending to have connections in show business. After promising her a vaudeville act at the Onyx club, Hart shoots him in cold blood when he double-crosses and discards her. With Hart being carted off to jail to await her trial, so begins the opening scenes of this smashing adaptation filled with glamour, greed and corruption, set in the steamy underworld of pre-World War II Chicago. Brilliantly recreating the 1920's with impressive costume design by Colleen Atwood ("Lemony Snicket," "Big Fish") and sets by John Myhre ("Elizabeth") and Gordon Sim ("Cinderella Man"), for which they won two Oscars; the picture easily draws you into the glitzy world of Chicago nightlife and the dark and sinister cells in the Cook County Jail.
Although at times as dark and cheerful as "Les Miserables," the story is captivating, the dance numbers are enthralling and it includes a slew of crafty characters such as the flashy starlet Velma Kelly, conniving jail warden Mama Morton (which won Queen Latifah a Black Reel Award) and brash journalist Mary Sunshine played by comedienne Christine Baranski ("Bowfinger," "Bulworth"). Most intriguing are messages about the obsession with fame and fortune in US culture which is still relevant today. With the Chicago public hungry for the next big star, we watch as Hart, groomed for success by master manipulator big city lawyer Billy Flynn (Gere), set to hoodwink both the courts and the press, portrayed by "Chicago" as a puppet show. Not to be outdone by Flynn, Roxie fights to create a little dazzle of her own and launch herself into stardom. Likewise, even Flynn's opposite number, district attorney Harrison, played by Hollywood's favourite hard man Colm Feore, is shown as a man seeking death penalties to further his own political career.
As the vapid, fame-obsessed Roxie Hart, Zellweger proved easily good enough to land a Golden Globe on her mantelpiece. Likewise, her foil, the double murderess and vaudeville star Velma Kelly, played by the exceptional Catherine Zeta Jones whose career started as a tap dancer in the British stage revival of "42nd Street," won her an Oscar and a BAFTA for best supporting actress. Richard Gere also shines in the role of self-assured, money-grabbing, cynical lawyer Flynn who claims "if Jesus Christ had lived in Chicago today and he had $5000 and he had come to me things would have turned out differently" - a role that was to see Gere justly nominated as Teen Choice's Best Villain.
A truly impressive transition from theatre to films and an entertaining look at the cut throat and savage world of those willing to do anything, including murder, for celebrity.
Film Critic: Jennifer M Lillies