Here are some of the movies that were up for Academy Awards on the evening of March 23, 2003: Gangs Of New York, The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers, The Pianist, Talk To Her, Far From Heaven, About Schmidt, Catch Me If You Can, Y Tu Mamá También, Minority Report, and Adaptation. Other, non-nominated 2002 films include Punch-Drunk Love, 25th Hour, Femme Fatale, and Morvern Callar. Yet in the annals of movie history—or at least in the annals of the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences history—the best picture released in the United States in 2002 was Chicago, Rob Marshall and Bill Condon’s adaptation of the 1975 John Kander/Fred Ebb/Bob Fosse Broadway musical. As Oscar-winners go, Chicago is far from the most galling, largely because 2002 was fairly light on masterpieces, and Chicago is generally likable. But as with so many pretty-good Oscar-winners before and since, the big prize has been a drag on Chicago’s reputation. The general public may not have any problem with Chicago, but for hardcore movie buffs, it falls aggravatingly in line with other “safe/middlebrow” Best Pictures.
The new “Diamond Edition” Chicago DVD/Blu-ray set offers a chance to reassess the film. and divorced from its awards success, it holds up surprisingly well. Or more accurately, the original musical holds up well, and Marshall and Condon’s adaption doesn’t wreck it. In a clever, catchy riff on celebrity, infamy, and The Jazz Age, Chicago uses vaudeville stagecraft and flapper fashion to tell the story of Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger) and Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), two literal man-killers who become darlings of the press as their cases come to trial, overseen by showboat lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere). Roxie and Velma are inventions of playwright Maurine Dallas Watkins, who wrote the original play in 1926 as a satirical indictment of gender biases and institutional corruption in the legal system. When Fosse brought the play to Kander and Ebb (inspired by his wife Gwen Verdon, who became the original Roxie on Broadway), the three men emphasized the theatrical spectacle, giving the characters show-stopping numbers that channeled their real passions through the trumped-up melodrama of “sob-sister” journalism.
When the movie version of Chicago came out, Marshall and Condon talked a lot about the chances they took with the adaptation. (That’s a recurring theme on the DVD/Blu-ray bonus features, too.) But really, the biggest chance they took was in sticking fairly closely to the original stage show, at a time when almost no one in Hollywood was making movie musicals in a conventional “putting Broadway on screen” way. Few songs from the musical have been excised or truncated in the film, and Marshall and Condon didn’t alter original’s plot or tone in any significant way. Even the costuming and choreography is recognizably Chicago—which is to say, it defers to Fosse. The one major change Marshall made, with Condon as his co-conspirator, was in contextualizing the big numbers by suggesting they’re happening in Roxie’s mind. That’s a smart solution to the problem of how to transition into song-and-dance, but it comes at a price, in that Chicago becomes less of a literal skewering of how celebrity criminals manipulate a rigged game, and more of a pure fantasy, not meant to be taken seriously.
The other glaring flaw in Marshall’s Chicago is that it over-relies on machine-gun editing, either because that’s the rhythm Marshall wanted, or because he needed to cover for the weaknesses of some of his cast. Either way, the pieced-together musical routines sometimes lack fluidity and chemistry. But Marshall compensates by eliciting lively performances from his leads (as well as from John C. Reilly, Christine Baranski, and Queen Latifah), and by coming up with some inventive staging. Marshall uses scrims instead of superimpositions to put different times and locations into the same frame, all while using darkness as a persistent backdrop, to spotlight his glittery stars.
There are multiple boffo numbers in Chicago: the sexy “Cell Block Tango,” where the chorus of murderesses recount their crimes; “We Both Reached For The Gun,” where Billy treats Roxie as his puppet, giving a carefully prepared statement to the press; and the big “Nowadays”/“Hot Honey Rag” finale, where Roxie and Velma get their ultimate revenge by turning their crimes into a show. Chicago ends on such a high with “Hot Honey Rag,” in the rare sequence where Marshall’s frenetic editing pays off, punching up the crescendo. What would cinephiles think of Chicago if their last lingering memory of the film was of Roxie and Velma hoofing away maniacally in front of a bank of lights, and not of a parade of self-satisfied people picking up statuettes?
The main extra on this DVD/Blu-ray set is a stupefyingly shapeless behind-the-scenes documentary, which takes two and a half hours to string together interviews with all of the principals into one muted, repetitive “Gosh, that was great.” Far better is the set’s Marshall/Condon commentary track, which is more energetic and chummy, because they’re interacting and not isolated—not mouthing platitudes into a void.