In 1920s’ Chicago, nightclub star Velma Kelly and aspiring performer Roxie Hart are in prison for murder: Kelly for killing her husband and sister (who were having an affair), and Hart for shooting her lover, despite her husband’s initial attempt to claim responsibility. With guidance from the venal governess Mama Morton, and money from her acquiescent husband, Hart seeks the help of the notorious attorney Billy Flynn, who has already made Kelly famous in the run-up to her trial. Kelly and Hart become rivals for the attention of Flynn and the public, but the arrival of a new prisoner, and a new case for Flynn, forces both to compete for the media spotlight.
A vaudevillian satire on criminal corruption in the 1920s might seem a hard sell for audiences other than Broadway buffs already familiar with the musical’s initial 1975 staging, and its more commercially-successful revival in 1996. Fans of the genre will readily relish the traces of Bob Fosse’s original chorographical direction, the musical and thematic connections to other iconic Kander and Ebb musicals such as Cabaret (released as a film in 1972), as well as the in-joke casting of Chita Rivera (the star of the original production) in a minor role as one of the prisoners. But even for non-aficionados of musical theatre, Chicago offers numerous pleasures: hummable melodies, a story about infamous criminality (one that resonated, upon its release, with a nation still digesting the OJ Simpson saga) and – for those that liked this sort of thing – a bevy of lithe female dancers cavorting in their underwear.
However, musical buffs have shown disagreement about whether Rob Marshall’s respectful adaptation of the stage show was a definitive record, with performances just as strong as those witnessed across stages of New York, London and elsewhere, or a missed opportunity to push the film musical in a new direction, as Baz Lurhmann and Lars von Trier were attempting around the same time. Whereas the show’s original incarnation had been in the form of a series of staged numbers linked by a loose narrative, the big screen version is told from the perspective of its central character: the wannabe cabaret star Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger). In this way, a coolly Brechtian piece of political satire is translated into a goal-oriented and psychologically-driven story, with the musical sequences – again staged as vaudevillian performances – as expressions of the character’s aspirations, delusions and anxieties, a device also used in von Trier’s ‘anti-musical’ Dancer in the Dark (2000). The result is an ambivalent response to ‘murder as entertainment’ (as attorney Billy Flynn puts it) – both a celebration of female empowerment, and a satire upon the monstrous appetites of celebrity culture. Marshall’s device of cross-cutting back and forth between ‘reality’ and Roxie’s star-struck imaginings gives the film its stylistic signature, but the rapid editing of many of the musical sequences tends to emphasize rhythmic synchronicity over fluidity of movement and the virtuosity of individual actors.
Yet despite its occasionally dizzying editing strategy, Chicago has an undeniable showbiz robustness, attributable in part to the elasticity of the true-life material – which had also inspired a play and silent movie of the same name (1925 and 1927), and the Ginger Rogers vehicle Roxie Hart (1942) – but also to the eye-catching performances of the leads (Catherine Zeta Jones, evidently no stage novice, acquits herself particularly well as the steely Velma Kelly, although Richard Gere brings charm but not quite enough venom to the Billy Flynn role). The major impact of Baz Luhrmann’s gleefully-anachronistic Moulin Rouge (2001) seemed at the time to herald either the end of the traditional Hollywood musical or its eventual inflection towards postmodernism and pop culture. As it happened, it was Chicago, for all of its formal conservatism, that established the decade-long trend for movie musicals based upon canonical or contemporary Broadway success stories, which included The Phantom of the Opera (2004), Rent (2005), The Producers (2005), Dreamgirls (2006), Hairspray (2007) and Rob Marshall’s own Nine (2009). Indeed, it seems likely that the revival of the Hollywood musical in the early years of the twenty-first century, together with the increasing popular appetite for burlesque shows and televized singing/dance competitions, may not have happened had Chicago failed to razzle-dazzle audiences, critics and Oscar voters so completely.