The new movie adaptation of the Broadway musical Chicago is a marvelous kick in the head, a rampaging, trumpets-blasting, smoke-and-slink steamroller of fishnet-stocking fun, so much fun, in fact, and so toe-tappingly entertaining, that if this production from first-time director Rob Marshall doesn't single-handedly revive the musical as a viable genre in Hollywood, then the musical deserves to stay dead.
Consider bringing along to the theater either aspirin or sunglasses, or both. Dazzling and forever pushing itself to top that last bit from two minutes ago, Chicago positively, shamelessly, kills.
In the old showbiz sense, of course. Every performer is a mench: Renee Zellweger is perfectly cast as a careerist criminal, playing up those puffy cheeks and squinty eyes like a cutie pie Disney creation gone bad; Catherine Zeta-Jones belts every song in a tough vinegary voice; Richard Gere . well . Richard Gere tap dances. And he's good, too. Their moves are edited up into pieces, so there's little of that fluid Fred Astaire thing. But every performance is a barn burner anyway. Every number is a show stopper. At times, every verse of every number is a show stopper. Just boom, boom, boom, all peaks, few valleys, and plenty of smoldering molls toting tommy guns, strutting, and knocking 'em dead.
In other words: there's no downtime, no lagging, just charisma and flash, but not in the way of Baz Luhrmann's darting-jittery reinvention of the movie musical, Moulin Rouge. Chicago is more accessible, less work; less bold too, sure, but far from ordinary or unimaginative. It's to musicals what Star Wars is to science fiction, a user-friendly overstuffed high-electric confection for moviegoers who don't like that kind of movie. To make another comparison: It's like Grease without the sour aftertaste of guilty pleasure.
What killed off movie musicals in the first place was the encroachment of reality, Marlon Brando's revolutionary naturalistic approach to acting in the 1950s, and a push from the artificiality of old-time Hollywood. When people complain they don't like musicals I think what they're whining about are Hollywood's often phony attempts to go from story to song seamlessly. Characters saunter along and break into song, then slide back again into reality. Movies like Oklahoma! and South Pacific, with their on-location sets and no razzle-dazzle, never quite sold the dreamy charm of a good stage musical.
Marshall, best known until now as a choreographer, has a disarmingly simple solution, albeit one perfected in the last great Hollywood musical, Bob Fosse's Cabaret (1972). He splits the film in two, cutting back and forth. There's the story, which is told like a story, a tale of celebrity in 1920s jazz-era Chicago, humid with sex, murder, and tabloids, spiked with cheerily lurid shots of satire and production design. And there are the numbers, which are just that, numbers performed on stage in the head of wannabe showgirl Roxie Hart (Zellweger), more or less; if you've seen the show, you might wonder if its prison sets and mammoth wall of zillion-watt light bulbs were shipped in from Broadway for the film.
Chicago is adapted from the 1975 musical by Fosse, Fred Ebb, and John Zander, revived with Bebe Neuwirth on Broadway in 1996, and playing ever since; Fosse himself adapted his musical from the 1942 Ginger Rogers movie Roxie, which, in turn, was an adaptation of a 1926 play called Chicago. Marshall cherry-picks, taking a pinch of old Hollywood broad strokes, and a dash of vaudeville; but most is direct from the Fosse production. Marshall is especially smart to punch up the sex and the sweat in this thing. The first scene alone combines a murder, a love scene, and a musical number. Vixen Velma Kelly (Zeta-Jones) stashes a gun and bounds out onto the stage and tears into “All That Jazz,” Roxie watching with star-struck eyes from the audience. As the number churns faster and faster, Marshall cuts from the stage to Roxie and her lover, who've withdrawn to her bedroom, and back again, tossing in flashes of skin and groping and Zeta-Jones slinking, and long plumes of smoke streaking, the dancing growing more erotic, the curves more accentuated, building until Roxie pulls a gun and kills the jerk.
You know you're in good hands after this. Roxie is headed to the gallows. In prison she finds Velma waiting, backed up by the prison matron Mama (Queen Latifah, who finally becomes a movie star here). Velma broke up a liaison between her husband and her sister with a few measly bullets. But Velma knows she'll get off. She hired lawyer Billy Flynn (Gere), who can get anyone off for $5,000. He knows how to play the newspapers, land splashy headlines, and when the occasion calls, literally tap dance around damaging evidence; one number has him working a press conference like a puppet master, strings dangling from reporters. Jealous of how Velma has parlayed murder into a career move, Roxie talks her dope of a husband (John C. Reilly) into coughing up $5,000 and hire Flynn, and Velma and Roxie begin a publicity duel.
Like more musicals than I can count, Chicago is lightweight and breezy, with not much of a story - even if Marshall always keeps it funny and cheerfully cynical. (We feel bad for Reilly, for a blink, then it's back to the barbs and wink-winks.) The film's satire of how the media make and break celebrities of the most amoral sort isn't particularly a groundbreaking revelation, either - even if it is always in season. Some of the cutting back and forth between the songs and the story is jarring; we're robbed a little of the electricity of being mesmerized by a great live performance.
But that's nitpicking.
Enough of that visceral rush is here. Actually, a lot of it is. Who would have thought we'd be discussing great song-and-dance numbers from Renee Zellweger in the first place? That Zeta-Jones could come off like an old-time movie star, tearing off lyrics with the self-possessed confidence of a blues diva? Or that Gere could smile? And sing like Anthony Newley? At the same time? Chicago is stagy, no question. You could say it feels a bit like cheating to so completely drop stage numbers into a movie, the editing and camera work providing the only real adapting. But what's there on the screen is too assured to dismiss, pure razzle-dazzle, the spirit of good fun you get from watching movie stars risk embarrassing themselves with song and dance, and all that jazz. Chicago's punch is as joyous as it is unpretentious: That's entertainment, indeed.