Let’s start with a clear understanding of this: I love Chicago, as in the musical and the City. Kander and Ebb, they of Cabaret fame, adapted a play concerning the concept of the “celebrity criminal” trial into a great musical, packed with brilliant songs, and in the original 1975 production on Broadway continued a wildly successful partnership with Bob Fosse, whose definitive choreography contributed to the vast success of the show.
So yes, I love the show. Unfortunately, I hate the movie. While there is undoubtedly a stylised vaudeville “razzle-dazzle” element to the show, the movie takes the conceit too far by switching and intercutting “real” scenes in the story with song/dance numbers on a vaudeville stage during the songs, unsuccessfully evoking the club scenes in Cabaret. The narrator announcements of each song don’t help either. Yes, they are in the stage show, but seem wholly out of place in the movie version.
Put simply, it detracts from the songs and makes the whole much less than the sum of the parts. Simplicity is a wonderful virtue, even if achieving it can be highly complicated – and here the effect is just awkward. Why mess around when you have numbers like Cell Block Tango, All That Jazz, Roxie Hart, When You’re Good To Mama, I Can’t Do It Alone, Mr Cellophane, Funny Honey and Razzle Dazzle, well capable of standing on their own feet unaided?
Rob Marshall‘s clumsy direction does not help. Camera angles seem wrong, many scenes seem fluffed, lacking the crispness you expect in the screen adaptation of a blockbuster musical. Compare to West Side Story and you’ll see exactly what I mean. Perhaps a better comparison is with Kander and Ebb’s own Cabaret, where the scenes in the Kit Kat Klub contrast with the events outside the club, allowing us to witness the contrast between the personal and professional lives of Sally Bowles. Here, the stage versions in Chicago add no value whatever.
Then there is the cast. I’m sorry, but Renee Zellweger is wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. No doubt she is a sweet girl but not the prettiest and certainly lacking the screen charisma and general pizazz of a true musical heroine. She does not “own” the stage, command attention. Eyes are never glued to her. She is just not the star she claims to be. Presumably she sang the songs rather than being dubbed, so evidently her voice is not really up to snuff either.
Catherine Zeta Jones fares rather better as Velma Kelly, and some of the supporting cast are delightful, notably the excellent John C Reilly as Amos Hart. But then we have Richard Gere, an actor known for his charming smile but apparently not much else, and a musical is evidently not his forte either – he looks like a fish not only out of water but cold, dead and on the slab. He and Zellweger belong together, but preferably not here.
Why not Henry Goodman and Ruthie Henshall, who did such a brilliant and award-winning job in the stage revival? Henshall may not be a Hollywood A-lister but she was brilliant on stage, can genuinely sing and dance, and would have been infinitely more charismatic. That she was not cast I can only put down to stupidity and ignorance on the part of Hollywood execs. Goodman is already well known to the studios so there is no excuse, even to offer the role to Gere.
This is a wasted opportunity – glorious raw material but a mess of a movie. In more assured hands, so much more could have done to turn Chicago into an epic. Sadly, Chicago the movie is a damp squib.