an Online Journal of Sorts

By Alyce Wilson

Feb. 23, 2003: Chicago is 'All That Jazz'

The neighborhood was foggy this morning, like my mind, bleary from staying up late and getting up early, one of my bad habits.

The fog was so calm, peaceful. It felt like cool breath, reminding me of foggy mornings in the town where I grew up, on the Susquehanna River.

Sounds hang heavy in the fog: a crow cawing thrice, a mourning dove weeping, dogs howling far away. I hear the children calling before I see them.

"Dad, can I get my pill?" one of them asks; a gruff voice answers, low.

The smell of pancake syrup hangs in the air. It's the kind of atmosphere where you could imagine anything coming out of the fog: whether monster or magical.

Pattering of rain sounds like a tap dance, reminding me of Chicago, which I watched yesterday. I'll offer my review.

Chicago was a terrific musical and a great film, but I can't see it beating its competition to win an Oscar for Best Picture. It's not the sort of movie that the Oscar voters normally reward, especially when it's up against an epic like Gangs of New York, made by Martin Scorsese, a respected director who's long overdue for an Oscar.

But Chicago has been nominated for more Oscars than any other film this year, so it's likely to receive at least one, perhaps for Best Costumes, for the gaudy, 1920s style showgirl outfits. Or perhaps one for Best Set Design, for the way ordinary sets like a courtroom are transformed into dance numbers.

The musical follows Roxie Hart, who in the opening scenes shoots her lover. She's sent to prison, to await trial. There, she meets the other women murderers, including a Vaudeville star, Velma Kelly, who killed her sister and her boyfriend.

Roxie longs for a life on the stage, and she has a vivid fantasy life, where the ordinary things around her turn into elaborate dance numbers, often counterpointing what's really happening. Catherine Zeta-Jones plays Velma Kelly; and Queen Latifa plays Matron "Mama" Morton, the prison warden. Both are nominated for Best Supporting Actress, while Zelwegger is nominated for Best Actress.

While there have been countless musicals about people in showbiz, Chicago turns that tradition upside down. Here, murderers take the place of showgirls, with newspaper clippings as eagerly sought as reviews.

Richard Gere is Billy Flynn, a lawyer with questionable morals, who takes on the cases of both Roxie and Velma. His two best numbers take place in the courtroom: "Razzle Dazzle," a literal circus for the eyes; and a tapdance, where he finagles his way out of a difficult situation.

Zeta-Jones is smoking in "All That Jazz," the opening number. She's got the sizzle of a real stage siren, but she gradually loses her smugness as she defends her fame against newcomer Roxie's popularity. Through it all, Zeta-Jones is compelling.

Zelwegger as Roxie is a complicated character: at once naive and conniving, passionate and gutless. Seduced by her 15 minutes of fame, she begins to believe she's a real star, though she's never performed on stage.

Although he has a small part, John C. Reilly turns in a solid performance as Amos Hart, Roxie's goodhearted and easily fooled husband. His outstanding moment is singing "Mr. Cellophane," as a Vaudevillian, doing a soft-shoe and getting down on his knees, throwing up his arms like Al Jolson.

Some have criticized the fact that Chicago plays around with tabloid fame without allowing any real sympathy for the characters. I would disagree: while a viewer may not sympathize with Roxie, they feel pity towards her, as she gets caught up in her delusions.

I much prefer the up-front playfulness and wit of Chicago to the trumped up sentimentality of Moulin Rouge, which broke ground for a big screen musical revival. Taking Billy Flynn's advice, Moulin Rouge razzle-dazzled the audience with flashy musical numbers while serving up a typical "boy meets girl, boy loses girl" scenario. Yes, it tugged the heart in all the right places, but the viewer is constantly aware of being manipulated.

Chicago is "lawyer meets girl," and the relationship stays at a lawyer-client level which, I think, is refreshing. The audience is manipulated at times, it's true, but the audience is also constantly in on the joke. It's an extravaganza, a circus for the eyes, and at the same time, makes some striking statements about media attention, the entertainment business, and the hunger for fame.

Flash and dazzle are sometimes just what you need on a gray weekend.

Copyright 2003 by Alyce Wilson

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