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Review by Brad Green:
My kind of razzmatazz and all that jazz. Yep, Chicago was Frank Sinatra’s kind of town. Ol’ Blue Eyes was still in short pants when King Oliver and Louis Armstrong migrated up the Mississippi to the Windy City and blew in the Jazz Age, but the town was irrevocably infused with their puckish rhythms. Of course those who decried jazz as the devil’s music no doubt felt justified in their paranoia as a demi-world of gangsters, broads, sleaze and scandal broke into full swing. Murder and armour became natural bedfellows in the dissolute atmosphere of Chicago in the 1920s – personified rather grimly at the decade’s end with the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. 

If there’s one inspiration songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb have thrived on it’s a dissolute milieu. The seedy, smoky clubs of Berlin in the 1930s provided the backdrop for Cabaret; and just to prove that there’s at least two great musicals to be fashioned from alluring tarts belting out showtunes, they backed up just as successfully with Chicago. You can feel the decadence in the ceaseless swing, and it’s utterly irresistible.

The two most fascinating aspects here are the return of the musical to the silver screen; and the fact that some big name thespians have done all the hoofing and hollering themselves. This is an entirely different swag of song and dance to Moulin Rouge, which while admittedly paving the way by parading Nicole in her undies, was basically a daring Baz Lurhmann conceit that could have fallen flat on its face but landed with a perfect arabesque. Here, on the other hoof, we have a fully-fledged, Tony-triumphing musical with all the old-fashioned conventions. After many long and empty years (if we ignore Madonna’s vacuous, vanity trip with Evita) our screen stars have been allowed to break into a bit of rhythmic razzle dazzle to propel a storyline, and audiences are lapping it up. 

Full credit to casting. If I didn’t know better I’d say that Catherine Zeta-Jones sounds like she’s been singing and dancing all her life. As a matter of fact, I do know better. She doesn’t just sound like she’s been singing and dancing all her life – she has been. By the age of 15 she had landed the lead in the British revival of 42nd Street; and listening to her confident, on-the-money performances here, I can only note that when Hollywood gained a sex symbol, the stage lost a star. 

I’m not aware of any warbling background for Renee Zellweger, but she makes a wonderful Roxie Hart. Instead of trying to match Zeta-Jones strong full tone, she counterbalances it with smoky intimacy. Quite amazing how she manages to sound so breathy when the music barely pauses to allow her to catch it. Together Zeta-Jones and Zellweger make as beguiling a pair of hot-blooded murderesses as ever strapped on  skimpy-ware and belted out some songs. Equally stellar performances are on offer from Queen Latifah (who was just born to vamp up When You’re Good To Mama) and John C. Reilly; and yes, even Richard Gere does well. 

For those unfamiliar, it is suffice to say this is not a musical of melodramatic ballads, just swinging-good show tunes from beginning to end. Practically the entire vocabulary of jazz-based musical numbers is covered in pastiches that delight by never taking themselves too seriously. Inebriated trumpets exchange lines with a raucous chorus; witty lyrics are underlined with playful rhythms; and frivolous piano runs and big brass arrangements decorate a long line of melodic hooks. There are enough showstoppers in this musical to halt Dubya’s war machine.

To top it all off Danny Elfman provides a couple of original cues that sound like he’s been doing this kind of thing all his career – and come to think of it he did flirt with 1920s swing (and Madonna: who actually would have been better suited here than in Evita) in Dick Tracy. By the time the swing has settled, the adjuncts of a hip-hop version of He Had It Comin’ and Anastacia’s closing titles track are anti-climaxes. 

Here’s hoping that Chicago sets the stage for a new era in movie musicals. If not, we couldn’t ask for a better one-off than this. These are my kind of tunes.

Published February 20, 2003

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TITLE: Chicago
ID: 399700 106770
ARTISTS: Catherine Zeta-Jones; Renee Zellweger; Richard Gere; Queen Latifah
MUSIC: John Kander
LYRICS: Fred Ebb

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