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Roxie Hart
It'll never work... I HATE YOU!

Velma Kelly
There's only one business where
that's no problem at all.

Chicago (2002)

Reviewed 2003-01-12
: I thought I had seen the future of movie musicals — a break with their past — when I was smitten with Baz Luhrmann's rousing Moulin Rouge! (2001). It was wonderfully old-fashioned, yet decked with modern pop tunes. It was cutting edge, risk-taking film style, yet it caught me up in its spirited earnestness. In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking... then I saw Chicago. Now the bar may not have been raised, but a Rubicon has been crossed: I think the movie musical, so long missing from cinema screens, is back.

Catherine Zeta-Jones

C'mon babe, why don't we paint the town?
I'm gonna rouge my knees and roll my stockings down
Start the car, I know a whoopee spot
Where the gin is cold, but the piano's hot
It's just a noisy hall where there's a nightly brawl
And all that jazz!
I don't think musicals get much better than Chicago. Sure, the story is an old one — Chicago has been a stage musical since 1975, with modern choreography by Bob Fosse illustrating a storyline as old as 1930s Chicago — but the pure, radiant energy on display here is what makes the show timeless. There's something about the ability of top-level actors to sing and dance as well that, at least for me, lifts them head and shoulders above the crowd. It was serendipitous to discover that Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor were so multitalented in Moulin Rouge!, but the three leads in Chicago practically leapt off the screen with their song and dance routines. Briefly, showgirl wannabee Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger) has something in common with headliner Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones): both killed their lovers and ended up in the slammer, where only tap-dancing lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) — "If Jesus Christ had lived in Chicago, and if he'd had $5,000, and had come to me, things would have turned out differently." — can get them off the murder rap. The prison matron, Mama Morton (Queen Latifah) is perfect as she belts out her signature song, "When You're Good to Mama."

Renee Zellweger, Richard Gere
Renée Zellweger and Richard Gere

I don't care about expensive things
Cashmere coats, diamond rings
Don't mean a thing
I don't care for wearin' silk cravats
Ruby studs, satin spats
Don't mean a thing
All I care bout is love
It's no surprise that R&B; singer Queen Latifah can vocalize. What gives my heart a lift is that three otherwise talented actors — if you can believe the end credits — managed to do their own singing and dancing. Only Zellweger and Gere are novices; Zeta-Jones began her career as a dancer on the London stage and she dazzles in her numbers as Velma. Roxie's performances appear to take place in her head, when they're not in the courtroom, until her final duet with Velma, and Zellweger (looking as thin as Bridget Jones was plump) holds her own next to the pros. When Billy defends Roxie against the murder charge in court, and suffers a reverse of fortune, what can a lawyer do but... tap-dance? Literally! Gere is more energetic in Chicago than I've seen him in a long time; often he gives the look of boredom or detachment from his roles, as he did in the otherwise excellent Unfaithful, but this film must have caught his interest. Either that, or director Rob Marshall showed him reviews of Dr. T & the Women.

There were delightful supporting performances from Taye Diggs as the Bandleader and John C. Reilly as Roxie's hapless husband, Amos Hart — Amos, usually called "Andy" when addressed by Billy, sings about his inconsequentiality in a funny number called "Mr. Cellophane." "A flash of leg, the taste of gin, the smell of corruption, and things that go bump in the night," says the promotional tagline. "Anywhere else it would be a crime, but this is Chicago." It would be a crime to miss this show!

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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance reviewer.