It's difficult for me to describe all the ways in which I love Chicago, because often times when attempting the explanation, my description winds up just as long as the feature's length. The short version of my recommendation would be for you to buy a copy for yourself as soon as possible. I had a VHS version that I watched so many times the colors started to fade, and now I'm happily watching my DVD copy ad nauseum.
I've seen the musical Chicago live onstage, and it's terrible. No one who actually likes music would enjoy sitting through the show. The script is crass, the characters aren't developed, and the songs are annoying. But, magically enough, when Bill Condon wrote the script for the film adaptation, everything changed. He and director Rob Marshall-in my humble opinion, one of the greatest directors of the modern era-completely changed the point of the story and made it not only accessible, but fascinating to film audiences. While onstage, it's about an aspiring showgirl who goes to jail for murdering her lover, in the film, it's about a fragile, disappointed woman who uses the allure of the stage as a mental escape when she's frightened. See how much more interesting that story is?
I've watched every behind-the-scenes featurette included on my DVD, and have since learned that Condon and Marshall purposely redesigned the story that way. Every time there's a musical number, it's because Renée Zellweger's character needs a mental distraction from her surroundings. When she's being questioned by the police, she imagines the song "Funny Honey", her first night in prison is comforted by the "Cell Block Tango", etc. Every song is in Renée's imagination. Not only is that method of storytelling incredibly clever and shows a unique side to the main character, but it's a great way to get audiences hooked into a film musical, a genre that pretty much died out in the 1970s, with the exception of 2001's Moulin Rouge. Chicago is infinitely superior to Baz Lurhmann's spectacular because it doesn't bombard the senses. It's a thoughtful, sensitive piece, perfectly balancing the fine line between musical comedy and a dramatic murder story.
In the golden age of musicals, songs and dances were often filmed in whole takes so audiences could see the continuity and realism of the actors' talents. Because of the way the story was designed, the numbers in Chicago couldn't be captured in long takes. The scenes constantly cut back and forth between fantasy and reality, simultaneously entertaining the audience with a song and advancing the story. Martin Walsh, the editor of Chicago, had his hands full with the multitude of camera angles and the challenge to set and maintain two separate paces within each song. The end result is a beautiful work of art.
Now, onto the performances. Renée Zellweger didn't take home the gold that year, even though her turn as Roxie Hart was the best performance of her career. She won her make-up Oscar the following year for her supporting role in Cold Mountain, a role that, given her Southern roots, she could have done in her sleep. Renée captures every subtle emotion of her character, making her situation sympathetic to the audience, even though she's shown cheating on her kind-hearted husband, murdering her boyfriend, and tricking her husband into taking the blame. How is someone like that sympathetic? Because the audience feel so incredibly sorry for her, this fragile woman with dreams of grandeur and severe mental issues. Renée is absolutely perfect.
Richard Gere takes the male lead, Billy Flynn, a part highly coveted in the musical theater world. Just like his costar, he takes a character that's utterly unlikable on paper and transforms him into someone the audience completely falls in love with-and not just because he's Richard Gere. His comic timing and charm play off Renée's insecurities wonderfully, and he seems to glide through the part effortlessly, as if he's done it a hundred times before and will probably do it again tomorrow. He doesn't seem bored or tired, though, just very well prepared-as Billy Flynn is supposed to be! Billy is the best lawyer in Chicago, so he actually has gone through his "song and dance" a hundred times before. It's a fine line to walk, and Richard walks it.
In the supporting cast are Catherine Zeta-Jones, John C. Reilly, and Queen Latifah. Each have their own show-stopping numbers that will stay with you long after the credits roll. Each character, even the smaller parts, are given many character facets to juggle-mirroring the reality-fantasy combination of the songs-and it's a true testament to Rob Marshall's directing that every actor and actress nail their parts. Queen Latifah is hardened and only slightly compassionate, but you can't help but trust her even when you know you shouldn't. John C. Reilly is every smart girl's idea of an ideal husband, and his "Mr. Cellophane" will probably make you cry. Every time I watch it, I wish I could reach into the television and give him a gigantic hug.
Catherine Zeta-Jones dazzles from start to finish, and while everyone has their own favorite and most beautiful performance, her turn as Velma Kelly might be mine. She's the archetypical 1920's vamp and uses every ounce of star power to attract and propel Renée's character through the story. As realistic and raw as Renée's performance is, Catherine's is equally staged and calculated. She makes bad look so good, it's no wonder Renée aspires to be just like her!
Chicago swept the 2003 Academy Awards, winning Best Editing, Costumes, Sound, Supporting Actress, Art Direction, and Picture, with Kirk and Michael Douglas famously reading the winner aloud onstage together. Additional nominations were earned for Cinematography, Directing, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Actress, and Original Song for "I Move On", played during the end credits. Obviously, if I had my way, Rob Marshall, John C. Reilly, and Bill Condon would have taken home statuettes as well. Julianne Moore also gave the best performance of her career that year in Far From Heaven, so I would have tied the leading ladies and given them both Oscars; Edward Lachman's cinematography in Far From Heaven was also beautiful, so I probably would have tied that category as well.
Whatever reason you decide to watch Chicago, whether it's for the eye-catching costumes, hidden talents of stars you didn't know were musical, clever storytelling, or beautifully framed and edited scenes, I'm sure you'll be entertained. I come from a long line of theater performers, and while my mom didn't like this movie, she admitted she was able to appreciate the work that went into it and how expertly Renée was able to sell her songs. I've written three musicals myself-and I'm the first to admit that Kander and Ebb's songs are the weakest elements of the show-and I still absolutely love this movie.