Rob Marshall’s latest feature and musical, Into the Woods, failed to captivate me in ways that a spectacular musical should. That experience craved something in me to once again revisit the twisted world and figures of Marshall’s 2002 Chicago. My initial viewing of the feature wasn’t overwhelming pleasant as I never understood the separation of the musical sequences to the stories themselves, which a huge factor of my enjoyment is since they carry a significant portion of the overall film. After multiple visits of Bob Fosse’s masterpiece, All That Jazz, and the less than stellar Cabaret; I found myself more attracted to the stylings that Marshall injects into his inspired feature, one that recalls the beautiful work of the master choreographer, and managing to instil his own stamp on it; with me finally understanding the hype that surrounds it and the beauty that fills it.
Much like Into the Woods, Chicago’s plot could be described in a nutshell; following a hopeful young woman, Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger), who has always dreamed of the spotlight on stage and the flashing bulbs outside it, idolising the legend turned prisoner Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Roxie also finds herself behind bars after the murderous outcome of her dispute with a lover, an affair that has lasted for at least month, behind her husband’s back, whom initially defended her claim with such loyalty, only to change his statement when he realises her true crimes against fidelity. In prison she hires a remarkable lawyer, who has yet to lose in a female case, by the name of Billy Flynn whose loyalties are grounded by cash. The film covers Roxie’s case and her newly found fame, hoping to escape the penalty of death.
In its reality where the dialogue remains plain and clear, it fills the gaps of its story that transitions the film from one number to another. The characters and their world are influenced by the cinematic exaggerations of its period, taking influence primarily from the figures and polishes of noir, a tactic that maintains the film’s stylish approach and keeps its audience engaged and entertained.
However, the film truly shines in its musical elements where its figures perform with such great choreography and wordplay, sucking us into their souls; more so than a regular musical could. It was in these numbers that the atmosphere begins to change, taking on with such metaphor and style the mindset of its key figures, primarily Roxie’s perspective. It is an idea that isn’t original but instead inspired by the trademarks of Fosse, and me being a deep admirer of his work, fund the entire approach to be more than appealing, it captivated me in ways that very few films could; many instances, I was left with seemingly permanent goose bumps and raised hairs from the sheer spectacle and beauty that carries in its luscious and purposeful movement and vocals. These aren’t tunes present for the sake of it; they carry significant weight in developing its characters, emphasising their emotions and thoughts, that would have been stale if fleshed out through traditional dialogue.
The film’s set design and costume are just as essential as the tune themselves, playing the role of support to the musical highlights, providing such dazzle that at times I simply couldn’t contain myself. The camera positions themselves through perfection, capturing its subjects and evoking such precise and inspired effect that it holds its grip on you until the final frame, where it’s flashing lights and huddling mayhem consume its protagonists.
The film’s themes come in the form of fame and how it consumes its characters, becoming more than a craving, instead evolving into a crutch that pushes its victims through desperation, deceitfulness; but they carry a sense of denial towards their issues and instead intends to find methods to once again thrive, and Marshall does a terrific job in wanting the audience to find success in these anti-heroes, hopefully to convey that a difficult and competitive world, there is still opportunities and hope for its individuals. It acts as a satire of the media’s influence on one’s outcome in the world, and in Roxie and Velma’s case, it is the only thing they have in the hopes of finding success and freedom yet again. Justice has been long tainted by ignorance and corruption, pushing further away the power Chicago once carried of virtue and idealism.
Renée Zellweger carries this film from beginning to end, an underdog anti-hero who craves for the fame and glory, only to find herself right at the bottom; we see her conniving but also naïve persona to eventually be consumed by the corruption and hunger, becoming a wolf that fights its way to the top and constantly snaring at those who attempt to strip it away from her. In her musical performances, she carries a distinct approach that separates her from her female co-star Catherine Zeta-Jones who plays a similar but more veteran role; even in the way they perform a number together with synchronised choreography, Zellweger and Zeta-Jones remain in character with their expressions and movement, with the former taking on a more desperate and purposeful aura while the latter displaying a sense of grace and comfort like an experienced performer would. Zellweger dominates over the other simply due to her fleshed out role that demands more of her, challenging her to the point of remarkable evolution that we can’t help but be impressed.
Chicago is a perfect specimen of a now rare genre, a film that without a doubt deserves the acclaim it has received during its release, and certainly is deserving of that same acclaim to be carried in the years ahead of it; but sadly cynical perspectives have hurt the film’s power, with new minds considering it as a mistaken choice for the top honours. Musicals would always divide its audience, and I believe as time passes by, this division would become more and more one sided, at a point where the genre would be obliterated; I hope for the sake of cinema it doesn’t. Rob Marshall’s magnum opus stands alongside proud and timeless peers among the likes of Sound of Music and Singin’ in the Rain.