For the first time since Oliver! took home the statue for Best Picture for 1968 the Academy bestowed its highest honor on a musical with Chicago. Other Musicals had been nominated in the 34 years between wins, like the previous year’s Moulin Rouge!, Cabaret in 1972, Nashville in 1975, and All That Jazz in 1979, but this once dominant genre had been slumbering from the Academy’s point of view for more than three decades. There are a lot of reasons that the musical fell out of favor with the studios and with the American public. From the studios’ point of view, musicals are often expensive showcases that rarely see a return on their investment, no matter how good the film is. From the public’s standpoint, a more jaded clientele was less likely to buy into the caricatured world where people break into song and dance as though it were a normal, everyday occurrence.
The musical could still work in animated features, but that’s because animation offers up an entirely caricatured world that is rarely reality based. Audience members’ minds are already open and prepared for the unusual, so it doesn’t feel odd or unusual for a character to just break into song. However as audiences became more sophisticate and/or jaded as we moved into the late 60’s and early 70’s, the musical underwent a massive transformation. No longer would characters just break into song. A musical now involved characters who were putting on a concert or worked in a theater or had some other real-world need to sing.
Chicago, on the other hand, was a film that harkened back to musicals of an earlier time where characters did break into song. In fact, most of this film’s story is told through song, and in that sense it’s much more like a Broadway show than a film. With that in mind, the songs in Chicago do exactly what you want songs to do in a musical. That is to say that the songs progress the story in a meaningful way. They aren’t just there for the sake of having them. Director Rob Marshall and screenwriter Bill Condon took the book of the musical play written by Bob Fosse and Fred Egg and used those songs drive the story, develop the characters and made them become an integral piece of the film.
Chicago is also a spectacle that rivals the big Musicals of the 50’s and 60’s, and even farther back. In fact, Chicago reminded me a little bit of The Great Ziegfeld with its bigger than life sets and its pure ostentatious point of view. As a musical, it also reminded me somewhat of West Side Story due to the serious nature of its content. As ostentatious as this film may be, it’s no whimsical farce, a la Gigi or My Fair Lady. This is actually a story about murder and lust and betrayal. It’s a story about doing whatever it takes to save your own skin and to get ahead in the world, even if that means lying, cheating, stealing and killing. Like West Side Story, there is a lot of fun in the music, but there are some very serious undertones to the story.
Overall, I liked Chicago but I didn’t love it. There was a lot to like about it, but it seemed like for every positive attribute the film has, there is one of equal negativity.
The songs are terrific, and so is the music. The numbers are filmed to show a ton of style and panache. Chicago is a movie that is self-aware, much like many of Fosse’s movies. This is a movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously and is like the party that everyone wants to be invited to. It’s fun. It’s irreverent. It’s sexy. Most importantly of all, Chicago is an entertaining film with laughs, drama and tension. Also, the Art Decoration/Set Design and Costume Design are spectacular and worthy of the Oscars that they won as well. I enjoyed the performances of Renee Zellweger (Best Actress nominee) and Catherine Zeta-Jones (Best Supporting Actress winner), although it took me a little while to determine whether or not I liked Zeta-Jones’ singing voice. I ultimately determined that I did, and I was surprised at how well she and Zellweger handled the musical numbers. They’re both fine actresses, but I had never seen them perform in Musicals before and their singing and dancing were both very good. Indeed, the performances of both Zellweger and Zeta-Jones went a long way towards making this movie as good as it was, and the chemistry that they had was terrific. I only wish they shared the screen more often in this picture.
However, I’m usually a fan of people learning something in a story, or suffering consequences when they don’t. There is a scene about half way through the film when Roxie Hart (Zellweger), who is relying on the dashing lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) to help her beat a murder rap. Over the course of his defense of her in the hearts and minds of the public, she becomes the star and celebrity that she always wanted to be but was never able to become on stage. She starts to become a little too big for her britches until Billy thinks that he has a more attractive client available, and he leaves her behind like an old glove. Then when one of the cell mates is taken to the gallows after all of her appeals have been exhausted, Roxie realizes the error of her ways, and rediscovers her humility. That humble lifestyle is short-lived, however, once the rap is beaten, and she ends up in an act with Velma Kelly (Zeta-Jones), herself having beaten not only a murder charge, but possible perjury as well. They both got away with murder and became big stars because of it. There really were no consequences to their actions at all.
That leads me to a larger point about the story and that is that this is a film filled with unlikable characters. Roxy starts out the film as fairly sympathetic, but not particularly likable. The first thing we see Velma do is wash the blood off of her hands which we deduce is from her sister whom she probably just killed. Both of these characters exude a smugness over the course of the story that isn’t admirable at all. It’s really just off putting. These are also characters that appear to be doing everything they can to make sure that they screw over the other characters in the story before they themselves are screwed over. These are back-stabbing, conniving people who live in a world that is a pessimistic place. Indeed, the one (presumably) innocent person in this story ends up on the gallows. I found myself not caring for any of these characters in any meaningful way.
That leads me to the story. It doesn’t matter how good or how dramatic your story is. If the audience doesn’t like, or even worse, doesn’t care about your characters, then the story will not succeed. That’s what I found to be the case with Chicago. I really didn’t care about the characters, so the story ultimately ended up just being tedious, and it lost all of its drama by the end. I didn’t care, and I left the story unsatisfied.
Overall, I found Chicago to be entertaining, which at the bottom line is what you want from any movie experience. However, I felt that they left a lot on the table, and had they done something to make either Roxy or Velma to be more sympathetic, not even necessarily likable, but at least sympathetic, then I might have been able to engage with the story more than I did. While it was entertaining and had some great musical and dance numbers, this was ultimately an unsatisfying movie because they didn’t do enough to get me engaged with the characters and that caused me to lose interest in the story. All of the music and dancing created a great show, but there was nothing underneath it to make it truly special. Chicago is a wide but shallow film.
Did the Academy get it right?
They certainly did not. There was a lot of stiff competition for 2002, and I can only imagine that the votes split and were thinly spread among all of the nominees. There’s also another factor to remember and that is that the country was very divided with the run-up to the Iraq War, and it’s entirely possible that the fun and entertainment value of Chicago, when compared to the very serious nature of the other nominated films, struck a chord with the voters in the same way that films like Going My Way and Oliver! beat out superior films during very serious times. For example, Gangs of New York was a highly publicized film by Martin Scorsese that had a sublime performance by Daniel Day-Lewis and adequate performances from Cameron Diaz and Leonardo DiCaprio, although both DiCaprio’s and Diaz’s inability to maintain their Irish accents drove me a little crazy. This is a violent and intense film and those components may have ultimately turned off some voters. It’s a good film, but not close to Scorsese’s best, and that fact might have kept it from overcoming the amount of violence, unlike a future Scorsese winner will do, and I’ll get to that in a few weeks. The Hours was an interesting film using the works of Virginia Woolf, as well as her suicide as the driving force behind three concurrent stories. It’s a fine, but depressing film and Nicole Kidman’s performance as Virginia Woolf would earn her a win for Best Actress. I honestly can’t believe that The Pianist didn’t win Best Picture that year. It’s a bit like Schindler’s List-Light, but it’s a heavy film and Adrien Brody’s masterful performance as the Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Warsaw Jew who eluded the Nazis for years earned him Best Actor honors. This is an intense film that almost any other year should have won, and I’m shocked that it didn’t. That said, my favorite film of the year was The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, which is my favorite film in the series. It was better in every way than Chicago. It was more dramatic, was a bigger and more complex production that was executed better. It was more cutting edge from a technological standpoint and it had a more compelling story with more sympathetic characters being performed by better actors. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers should have been your Best Picture winner for 2002.