Live theater possesses a spontaneous energy that film, regardless of its many superiorities as an art form, can never truly match. It is exhilarating to watch a group of performers strut across the stage exclusively for you, their own skill reliant on the excitement and involvement that you show toward the story they are telling.
With that said, it is a tribute to the film “Chicago,” Rob Marshall’s adaptation of the Bob Fosse Broadway musical, that it almost makes you forget that any celluloid separation exists at all.
This timeless tale of notoriety, murder and manipulation crackles with showmanship from start to finish. Every song, line and dance step will send a shock through your system, making your every hair stand on end. The performers blaze across the screen as if each note and strut is for your ears and eyes only. If “Moulin Rouge” heralded the movie musical’s comeback, then “Chicago” just signed it to a 20-year contract with a back-end deal.
Renee Zellweger plays Roxie Hart, an aspiring performer in ’20s Chicago. She wants nothing more than the love of the masses and the glare of the spotlight. When her lover breaks his promise to help her put together her own act, Roxie’s charming determination morphs into murderous rage. She soon finds herself behind bars with the notorious Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a fellow entertainer sent to the slammer for popping a cap in her husband and sister after finding them in bed together.
Roxie commissions the skills of quintessential sleazeball attorney Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) to win over the jury. As it turns out, his talents extend beyond legal manipulation. He turns her into the “it” girl of Chicago, the murderess everyone knows and loves. Except Velma, of course — she is not about to lose her public to the new girl on the block. The two killers are soon locked in a tooth-and-nail battle to win the adoration of the masses.
Whether on stage or screen, the story’s cynicism is appealing because it taps into the deep, dark obsession with celebrity that we all have. The tale forces us to enjoy our own superficial impulses. Even as we scoff at how easily the ’20s Chicago citizens bend to the media’s every whim, it soon becomes clear that these roaring bad girls can also spellbind us. In one show-stopping number, Velma leads a band of killers in a thrilling jailhouse tango. Each woman flippantly recalls her murder with sensual, wily verve, enrapturing and disarming the audience with her smooth moves and guiltless fury. By the sequence’s explosive climax, we too are blinded by the lights, seduced by the girls’ hearts of darkness. What the media does to Chicago the city in the film, “Chicago” the movie does to its audience in the theater. The film just uses music rather than newspaper.
But the Broadway show is about more than our collective dark societal underbelly, our need for fame at all costs. It is also a vaudeville that revolves around the thrill of the live show, a story that justifies its antiheroes’ desperate need for the stage by wowing its audience with actual stage theatrics. No movie can ever completely embody such a theme.
The brilliance of the film, and Marshall’s ingenious direction, is the way it uses cinematic narrative techniques to substitute for what the stage conveys. Marshall turns the musical numbers into figments of Roxie’s imagination. Her subconscious is acting out the very song-and-dance euphoria that consumes her. It is a device that never falters, seamlessly transporting us from reality to fantasy and back. By entering Roxie’s head, we can understand, with startling intimacy, the singular joy of performing for an adoring crowd.
While the Broadway show focused on Roxie and Velma equally, the placing of Roxie’s desires at the forefront naturally highlights her character as well. This alteration places huge responsibilities on Zellweger, and she does more than just carry the load: she is a revelation. She sings and dances as if she’s been doing it all her life and in the process crafts a deft performance that builds each look, each note, and each showgirl growl into a fascinating composite of vulnerability and villainy. At the same time, she wisely avoids the cliched “conflicted character” trap. She is a greedy and heartless bitch to the core. But brief glimpses of deer-caught-in-the-headlights innocence make us like her even when we know we shouldn’t.
Along with Zellweger, the entire all-star cast gives us one pleasant surprise after another. Even for those who hate all musicals on principle, see “Chicago” just to experience the satisfaction of watching Gere tap dance, Zeta-Jones slink through “All That Jazz,” and Queen Latifah shake her tatas. It may be the closest you will ever get to these stars in person. And admit it — deep down, isn’t that what we all really live for?