Musical theater can beguile with its pathos, lure with its pyrotechnics, and inspire with its energy. Most importantly, however, it brings the sheer fact of living, breathing, physical presence, the experience for both performer and audience of sharing a unique moment in which each feeds on the attention of the other. A perfunctory storyline or a shaky characterization usually vanishes in the sheer intoxication of a fabulous song, sexy choreography or the collective brio of a triumphant company on stage. But in shifting musical theater to the screen, writers, producers and directors face the unenviable task of perfecting that unique moment in an infinitely reproducible form.
For its first half hour, Chicago pulls off this trick with extraordinary force. As Velma Kelly, jazz diva and death row inmate, Catherine Zeta-Jones is mesmerizing, and Renée Zellwegger, as aspiring ingénue Roxie Hart, mixes inexperience, cupidity, and violence in an icy portrait of mindless self-absorption. Roxie’s initial unselfconsciousness supports director Rob Marshall’s conceit for the film, that the musical numbers reflect her surreal translation of her sordid life into the decadent entertainments of Prohibition-era Chicago.
Having established character, milieu, and rationale for the lurid expressionism of the production numbers, however, it’s as if director and cast breathed a huge sigh of relief and relaxed. Nothing really changes for the rest of the movie: characters don’t develop and the denouement seems an afterthought. For Chicago the movie, these are fatal flaws, for it is also struggling with an unsophisticated story, a director more accustomed to stage (and tv adaptations thereof) than to screen, and principals whose presence owes more to box office clout than song-and-dance talent.
Marshall and writer Bill Condon choose not to open out the storyline that, in its original stage form, was a slender thread on which to hang a vaudevillian extravaganza. Velma and Roxie both commit murders, meet in a women’s prison, exploit and then fall foul of the public’s appetite for sensation, and face a penniless future while their sleazy lawyer rushes off to the next money-making murder by a sweet female killer. The movie only paints, in broad, simplistic strokes, the decadence of celebrity’s lure and the concomitant corruption of a legal system where notoriety is always the biggest winner.
The vehemence of the film’s criticisms of the capitalist conjunction of public voyeurism, ruthless self-fashioning in the media’s eye, and legal profiteering might have seemed startling 75 years ago when the original play, The Brave Little Woman was first produced. But now it seems naïve, a set of poses lifted from any rightwing publication bemoaning the collapse of civilization as social conservatives wish it had been. For both director and actors, this skein of attitudes in place of a plot proves a serious liability, which they strain to overcome.
Watching Chicago is rather like watching a shot-for-TV music video by a neophyte director projected without thought or re-cutting straight to a movie screen. Most of these sequences probably looked unforgettable in the small-scale world of an edit room monitor, or the intimacy of a screening room. Projected full-screen, the indiscriminate editing between shots of all sizes and angles renders almost every number a hodge-podge collage of jagged, sometimes dazzling but rarely coherent, visual fragments.
Perhaps someone should have reminded Rob Marshall that framing, camera angles, and edit points have meaning beyond the provision of eye candy to dissipate potential audience distraction. A rare exception is Queen Latifah’s rendition of “When You’re Good to Mama, Mama’s Good to You,” where Marshall and editor Martin Walsh cut together beautifully nuanced sequences of her very, very erotic bump-and-grind progress across the pit of the house.
In this number, Marshall trusts Latifah to deliver (or directs out of her) a riveting performance. In the remainder of the movie, he replaces that trust (or directorial inspiration) with a Moulin Rouge-like frenzy that might eclipse the weaknesses of his stars. And while all three excel at moments in the movie, any judgment about the quality of their song-and-dance talents is inevitably followed by the silent proviso, “for Hollywood screen actors.”
Marshall relegates Zeta-Jones, by far the most dynamic and musically relaxed of the three, to a sniping, catty supporting role status. While Zellweger captures the degradation brought by Roxie’s lust for celebrity, her performance lacks passion. During the film’s second half of the movie, she seems to be channeling all too assiduously a (by turns) sulky and sultry Marilyn Monroe, a comparison especially vivid when she and Zeta-Jones duet (a faint shadow of Monroe and Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes).
And, while no one can convey corrupt self-gratification as luxuriantly as Richard Gere, as flashy lawyer Billy Flynn, his satisfaction at his own exploitation of a corrupt legal system shades at times into what looks suspiciously like the actor’s smugness at pulling off a few songs and a tap routine.
As if in league with him, Chicago exemplifies contemporary Hollywood’s ambivalent relationship to musical theater and its on-stage practitioners, its inability to believe in the property without an infusion of movie stars. Since musical production diminished in the late ‘50s, Hollywood can’t sustain stables of both dramatic and musical talent, and it long ago chose to bet on drama. So, just as Julie Andrews lost out to the unmusical but highly popular Audrey Hepburn for the title role in My Fair Lady almost forty years ago, the equally talented and wholly unique Babe Neuwirth lost out to Zeta-Jones as the screen incarnation of Velma Kelly.
Movie musicals like Cabaret, where casting decisions rode on the talents required for the part, not on box-office appeal, and which gained immeasurably from the hoofer’s chutzpah of Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey, are rare indeed. Thus it was that this reviewer certainly came out of the cinema humming “All that Jazz” (the first number in the movie), and woke up the next morning with the soundtrack of Cabaret running through her head.