Wednesday, January 1, 2003

Sex as illegal tender

The hit musical about women on death row heats up the screen.

Posted By on Wed, Jan 1, 2003 at 12:00 AM

Welcome to a time and town where scandal and murder are forms of entertainment. The vaudeville circuit is swinging full-steam with the Kelley Sisters act red-hot on top. But Velma Kelley (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is doing the show alone tonight — that is, after she washes the blood off her hands. It seems she caught her sister Veronica and husband Charlie doing No. 17 in the routine — the spread-eagle.

Watching Velma’s one and only solo show is Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) with her lover, Fred (Dominic West). As Velma rocks the room, Roxie dreams her way on stage — at least in her own mind — until she realizes that Fred is a lying son of a bitch and has never had any “friend” for her to talk to at the Onyx Club. Somehow, Roxie and Velma, two delicate and beautiful victims of betrayal and circumstance, end up on death row. And both have set their sights on defense lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere).

Chicago is based on the play written by Maurine Dallas Watkins, which, in turn, was based on the true crime tale of Beulah Annan. In 1924, Watkins was a reporter for the Chicago Tribune covering a story about an adulterous woman, Annan, accused of killing her lover, Harry Kalsteadt. Watkins was so captivated by the story that by 1926 she’d written a play with Roxy Hart as the stage version of Beulah. In 1975, the play became a musical success story thanks to John Kander and Fred Ebb’s music, and step-connoisseur Bob Fosse’s choreography and direction. And though the leap from a Broadway hit to cinematic victory is far from a sure thing, this time it got done right.

For a guy who’s only directed one other film (a TV version of Annie in 1999), Rob Marshall has successfully translated all of his knowledge of dance composition to cuts, moves and camera angles with just as much finesse as Fosse did with choreography, as if the camera eye had its own pirouettes to execute. Marshall depicts flashes of thought and lust for fame with spaghetti straps, sequins, rolled stockings, songs through lush lips, gyrating hips and clever segues, as the act of murder blurs into top-notch movie entertainment.

Although you may not be used to hearing songs from Zellweger, Jones, Gere and John C. Reilly, out they come, and only their mothers know if there was any technical tampering. But when it comes to showmanship, dancing and acting capacity, the entire cast blazes in a triumph of versatility. Zeta-Jones’ black, dramatically angled Louise Brooks bob next to Zellweger’s blond finger waves just highlights the contrast between their personalities. Gere seems quite at home surrounded by singing showgirls; and both Reilly (as lackluster but relatively loyal husband Amos) and Queen Latifah (as prison matron “Mama” Morton) fulfill their costumed musical alter egos with pluck, polish and ease.

As a spectacle for the ear and eye, Chicago embraces and echoes surreal and stylistic elements from filmed musicals of the past — more gritty and engaging than the completely superficial Moulin Rouge (2001), yet nowhere near as insidiously multifarious as Fosse’s nonpareil Cabaret.

When it comes to musicals, it seems as if the sentient journey can’t go much beyond the predominant tone of the tunes, which in Chicago’s case happens to be “murder, made fun.” As in the stage show, the music’s tongue-in-cheek, knife-in-the-back attitude keeps the story from diving too deeply into the darker regions of the human condition, but works just fabulously when it comes to sensationalizing and elevating blatant bloodshed through the powers of marketing and media. Because of Flynn’s lawyer logic — “Nobody’s gonna care a lick about your defense if they don’t care about you” — the battle for innocence turns into a popularity contest, both ludicrous and bedazzling.

If nothing else, you’ll be wowed by death row women in bondage bikinis fondling bars and singing a plea for their sensitive sides in “Cell Block Tango,” or the awe-striking visual array of “We Both Reached for the Gun,” with its marionette metaphor made real.

Chicago takes Shakespeare’s words to heart with a little extra dark twist and begs the question: Is the stage a metaphor for life — or is life merely fodder for a good musical?

Anita Schmaltz writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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