After decades of razzle-dazzling the theater world from New York to London to (you guessed it) Chicago, John Kander & Fred Ebb's widely admired musical Chicago finally made it on to the silver screen ... and the results were pretty damn amazing.
Feature film debut from director Rob Marshall (who has since gone on to direct Memoirs of a Geisha) and deliciously juicy vehicle for actors like Renee Zellweger, Richard Gere, and Catherine Zeta-Jones, Chicago was a Broadway-style smash, raking in over $170 million at the North America box office while wowing critics and audiences alike. But after the film won 6 Oscars out of 13 total nominations and the "buzz" gradually wore down, Chicago was treated like some sort of red-headed & Oscar-hungry stepchild. The movies that Chicago "beat" for Best Picture? Scorsese's Gangs of New York, Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Daldry's The Hours, and Polanski's The Pianist.
Forgive me for believing that the best pic won that year.
Capably proving to a modern audience that a Broadway classic can be augmented on its way to the silver screen and be a rousing success, Chicago traveled down the path cleared out by Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge, and its good fortune led to the green-lighting of projects as varied as The Phantom of the Opera, Rent, and The Producers. The "big flashy movie musical" was back from a prolonged hibernation, and it was Miramax's Chicago that acted as the alarm clock.
A dual-pronged tale of sex, scandal, murder, and music, Chicago stars Renee Zellweger as Roxie Hart, a sweet-faced little ingenue who just happened to shoot her lover dead after an unexpected jilting. Catherine Zeta-Jones plays Velma Kelly, a considerably darker and vampier femme fatale who just killed her husband and her sister in a fit of jealous rage. Now incarcerated and (quite literally) the talk of the entire town, Roxie and Velma must contend with the ravenous press, a greedy prison matron, and a joyfully sleazy lawyer called Billy Flynn, a wickedly charming shyster who promises to get any jailed woman "off" -- provided she has his $5,000 retainer.
On paper, the idea of translating a stage play into movie form might not seem all that difficult. You just have to hire the right people, copy the classic songs down, and roll cameras, right? Well, no. If that were the case, The Phantom of the Opera wouldn't have been a laughable mess, and Rent might have been a smash hit instead of a one-weekend wonder. I believe the key to successfully adapting a stage musical into a movie is knowing you're going to have to change a lot of things around, while always keeping the essence of the material the same.
I've never seen Chicago on a stage, but I know some serious Broadway fans who'll swear up and down that Marshall's cinematic adaptation maintains a smooth, slick, and entirely effortless respect for Kander & Ebb's classic show. One relatively controversial touch by Marshall was to have all the musical numbers take place "virtually" inside of Roxie's head instead of "literally" as part of the narrative, which means that the movie characters might not suddenly break into song ... but their "internal alter egos" sure as heckfire do. But regardless of whether the songs and dances take place in 'reality' or as part of a series of extended 'dream sequences,' the simple truth is this: They're all awesome. Every damn song. (And this is coming from a guy who can find one or two "meh" songs in all of his favorite musicals.)
The three leads deliver consistently stellar work. Who knew Cathy Z. Jones could belt out the notes like this? Who knew Renee Z. could shake her booty so deliciously? And who would have ever expected Richard Gere to sing and dance so endearingly and entertainingly? (Certainly not me!) Throw in some staggeringly strong supporting work from the likes of John C. Reilly, Queen Latifah, Colm Feore, and Christine Baranski, a non-stop playlist of toe-tappin' ditties, and a directorial style that's as glitzy & grand as it is subtly satirical ... and you've got about half of what makes Chicago so gosh-darned enjoyable.
Plus the thing just rockets by with nary a misstep. Rare is the 130-minute film that feels more like 75, but Chicago is brisk, efficient, passionate, and playful. It's a film that holds up to repeat viewings, not only because of its numerous and joyful musical sequences, but also because of the wit, the tone, the performances, and the unending style of the affair. I really enjoyed Chicago during its theatrical run, and now that I've seen it twice more on DVD, the thing's fast becoming a personal favorite.
Video: Having never experienced the original DVD release of Chicago, I cannot adequately compare the two transfers, but I highly doubt that any Chicagoans will take exception with the fantastic anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) presentation offered here. The flick's palette is all smoke, shadows, and glitter, and this DVD transfer does a fantastic job of bringing the flick home in fine fashion. I've heard many say that this transfer is a noticeable improvement over the previous DVD, so there's that.
Audio: Choose between Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1, Spanish 2.0, or French 5.1. Hardcore DTS enthusiasts should find this platter to be something pretty special, while I was pretty darn impressed by just the 5.1 track! The songs kick through the speakers in boisterous and bombastic force, and I think they sound just wonderful. Optional subtitles are available in English and Spanish.
Extras: Disc 1 of this 2-disc "Razzle-Dazzle" edition houses a pair of extra goodies found on the initial DVD release: a fluid and extremely informative audio commentary by director Rob Marshall and screenwriter Bill Condon and one great deleted musical number ("Class" by Ms. Jones & Ms. Latifah). New to this set is a 28-minute featurette entitled From Stage to Screen: The History of Chicago, which is packed with interviews and photographs that focus on the expansive history of the stage show -- and is quite excellent indeed. But we're just getting started, extras-wise:
Disc 2 starts off with a ton of isolated musical performances that include alternate takes, cut scenes, and rehearsal footage. (Don't worry though: the songs remain (mostly) the same!) The goods are as follows:
And All That Jazz Extended Performance (6:05)
Chita Rivera's Encore is a 5-minute featurette that focuses on the original Velma Kelly and the cameo role she plays in the movie version of a show she helped to make world-famous.
An Intimate Look at Director Rob Marshall is a 20-minute piece that looks at the credentials, experience, and passion that the first-time director brought to such a massively adored property.
When Liza Minnelli Became Roxie Hart runs about 16 minutes and features a rather fascinating anecdote about how Ms. Minnelli may have actually "saved" the Chicago stage play from an early demise. Archival footage of Liza performing on The Dinah Shore Show includes a sweet little surprise at the end.
Running about six minutes apiece are a pair of featurettes devoted to Academy Award-Winning Production Designer John Myhre and Academy Award-Winning Costume Designer Colleen Atwood. To say these artists have earned their own featurettes would be a supreme understatement. Frankly I wouldn't have minded a few extra ones for screenwriter Bill Condon and editor Martin Walsh.
Rounding out the second platter is a 36-minute retrospective piece called VH1 Behind the Movie: Chicago, which is actually not a bad little piece of marketing fluff, as these things go. Produced after Chicago's 13 Oscar nominations but before the Awards ceremony, this is a surface-deep but entirely entertaining little piece.
Great film, great music, great transfer, great extras. I think Chicago will eventually be remembered as one of the best movie musicals of all time, and this particular DVD release is the best release yet. DVD Talk Collector's Series all the way, and it's even worthy of a double-dip to those who already own the single-disc release.