This week’s Beauty in the Movies brings us to corrupt prohibition-era streets filled with showgirls and criminals in one of the best movie musicals to come along in a good while—Chicago.
It’s 1927 and vaudeville star Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones, whose performance got her an academy award) has just been arrested for the murder of her sister and husband after finding them in bed together. Half of Chicago bears witness to her show stopping arrest, including bored housewife and aspiring performer Roxie Hart (Renee Zellwegger) and her lover Fred Casely. Fred has promised to get Roxie on stage, but after their affair fizzles he reveals he lied to get her in bed. Furious at Fred when he tells her she’s a “two-bit talent with skinny legs” and will never be a star, Roxie pulls her husband’s handgun from his underwear drawer and shoots Fred dead. Her sad-sack husband Amos (John C. Reilly) agrees to take the fall, but when the detective tells him the dead man’s identity he realizes he has been made a cuckold.
Roxie soon finds herself in the Cook County Jail residing in “murderers row” under the watch of the double-dealing matron, Mama Morton (Queen Latifah). Roxie goes to, the now infamous, Velma Kelly for advice, but Velma snubs her leaving Mama to offer assistance instead. Roxie learns that for $5,000 she can get hot-shot lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) to represent her, assuring her acquittal. With Flynn’s help Roxie becomes Chicago’s murdering sweetheart as the press eats up her sad story, especially female reporter Mary Sunshine (Christine Baranski). Roxie’s fame soon bumps Velma Kelly right out of the spotlight. Unfortunately the public is fickle, and when an heiress (Lucy Liu) commits a double murder, Roxie realizes she is easily replaced.
Chicago is a musical based on a play by Maurine Dallas Watkins. As a reporter for The Chicago Tribune, Watkins covered the cases of two murdering “jazz babies” in 1924, which would later form the basis for her play. While the original crime stories are a far cry from the glammed up musical, the idea remains the same. Justice isn’t often blind—if you have the right resources, a juicy story, and the love of the public, you can get away with murder. Celebrity criminals often get lighter sentences due to their status and wealth, but Chicago is about characters who are famous because of the crimes they commit—it’s hard to say which is more disturbing.
If you like musicals, Chicago is a must-see, the dancing is fantastic as is the jazz-era music and costumes. The numbers are staged to play-on traditional vaudevillian acts, from ventriloquism to tap dancing. The original musical was directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse and this film retains much of his style and spirit.
It annoys me when celebrities are cast in movie-musicals where they have to sing and dance, because often they fall way short. Musical theater is a whole different realm and it requires a certain energy. That being said, I was completely blown away with Catherine Zeta-Jones in this film, all the other actors do a good job as well, but in terms of ease and ability, she is the stand-out for me. Actually John C. Reilly is pretty great as the sympathetic schmo Amos too.
You’re not actually supposed to like any of these characters or think they’re good people. It’s implied that they’re morally questionable at best. Even sympathetic Amos is not completely likable because he lacks the self-respect to walk away from his cheating, lying, manipulative wife. It doesn’t matter that we know they’re bad—Velma Kelly, Roxie Hart, Billy Flynn, they get away with being bad because of their charm, and the audience is no more immune than the jury.
Chicago explores themes that are as relevant today as they were 85 years ago. With celebrities like Paris Hilton getting out of jail-time for “medical conditions” and Amanda Knox given the nickname “Foxy Knoxy” while on trial for murder, it seems we haven’t come very far. Reality TV is just another way we revel in the foolishness of others’ actions as we watch from the sidelines and make judgments—Chicago proves that this spectacle is nothing new. Things don’t change as much as we like to think; drama, crime, cruelty, sex, they’re just too juicy for the public to ignore, and it’s been that way for a long time.
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