#TBT Reviews: Chicago (2002)

From vaudeville and jazz, to wild parties and speakeasies in rebellion against prohibition, all the way over to #feminism, the 1920’s are a fascinating decade in history for many, and a lot of fun to see reimagined in period films. Arguably even more fun when it’s a – bah-na na nahhhh – musical! Directed by Rob Marshall and winning the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2002, Chicago is a fun and spunky feminist film set in the 1920’s about love, lust, money, fame, jazzzzzz, and murder… so everything good and well, basically. With strong performances from our female leads Renée Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones, and our supporting roles played by Queen Latifah and Richard Gere, it’s definitely a musical worth your time.

The film was adapted from the stage after having experienced enormous success in the 70’s when it was first performed on Broadway in ‘75 and the West End in ‘79, then once more when it was revived on Broadway in ‘96 and the West End in ’97. Chicago is based on a play written in 1926 by Maurine Dallas Watkins, who based it on real crimes and criminals she had encountered as a reporter. The Broadway musical revival of Chicago was the longest running American musical in Broadway history, so it’s no surprise the film adaptation was a huge success.

In addition to some incredible musical numbers and all the pizzazz you want from a great film, Chicago deals with two very hot topics: the American criminal justice system, and being a woman in America. I call this a feminist film, but I go back and forth between loving the “strong” female characters, and seeing right through that so called strength. Unfortunately I have not had the opportunity to see the musical live, so this is strictly just a review of the film adaptation. My Broadway musical-loving twin aunts, however, reassured me that the songs were the same and the numbers very similar to the stage musical!

Miss Roxie Hart, played by Zellweger, is an aspiring vaudeville performer, currently performing in the chorus. She’s very envious of the famous and talented Kelly sisters – that is, until Velma (Zeta-Jones) kills her sister and boyfriend and no longer has a partner for her act… awkward. Told that he has connections to advance her career, Roxie has an affair with Fred Casley, a furniture salesman. Welllllllllll Roxie gets pretty upset when she finds out he lied to her just to GET SOME so she does what any respectable woman would do in that situation and shoots him dead. She convinces her adoring dope of a husband, Amos Hart (John C. Reilly) to take the blame and claim it was in self-defense, but when that backfires, she goes to jail. The same jail Velma Kelly just so happens to be in, and where we also get some Queen Latifah action in her role as “Mama,” the Matron of the Cook County Jail.

HELLO ACT 2. With the help of Billy Flynn (Gere), the “silver tongued prince of the court room,” Velma Kelly uses her fame to seek her acquittal, while Roxie Hart uses her acquittal-seeking to become famous. They butt heads a bit when Roxie steals Velma’s thunder (aka coverage in the press), but Billy works some magic and “proves” both birds’ innocence with one stone, or however the saying goes.

I personally love the structure of the film where it’s somewhat divided in two worlds: the real world where the action of the plot happens, and the stage world where the numbers are performed to reflect and compliment the plot, explain some things, and just be great entertaining vaudeville acts. It’s as if all of the musical numbers are part of a large vaudeville act, and kind of just happening in their heads.

The story and characters are really fun and keep you on your toes; it’s not every day you see a film about women murderers and women’s prisons and swanky male lawyers… oh wait, scratch that last one. I particularly love the set and costume design: it sets you back in the 20’s while also making you feel like you’re part of the musical mystique and pizzazz of Broadway. The performers, the choreography and musical numbers are wonderfully entertaining – my favorite of course being “Mr. Cellophane,” performed by John C. Reilly.

I also love love love a good female-led story and film, BUT here’s my issue. One could argue that these female characters are using their bodies and sex appeal to get what they want, which is I suppose a good thing for women because they’re outsmarting men and/or other women. On the contrary, one could also say the fact that they have to use their sexuality to manipulate men in order to get what they want is like, kinda “woo!” good for women, but also WHY DOES THERE HAVE TO BE A MAN IN THE PICTURE AT ALL?? I’ve come to the conclusion (at least in the moment I’m writing this sentence) that this does a pretty good job of representing feminism in the 1920’s; women going after what they want and doing what they have to in the still very much male-dominated society to get it. Also murdering men, which is considered a “strong” characteristic, I think. You know, being tough and fitting the bill of a traditionally masculine trait and all that … And on top of that, it still comes back to – drum roll please – murdering MEN! They murdered a man because of a jealous rage, or some variation of a jealous rage. I personally don’t like female leads that still somehow revolve around a man, but Chicago really has me going back and forth on the issue like a ping-pong ball in the midst of a never-ending volley, so I’d love to hear some of your opinions!

Overall, if you’re in the mood for vaudeville AND a well-developed plot driven by some talented women, Chicago is the film for you! Unless you have the opportunity to see the actual musical, then go do that because FUN. Or see both, that’s a thing too.

And despite my criticisms, I still really adore this film for everything it is, so I’ll give it an 8/10.

Eliza McGowan-Stinski

I have been a barista for three years but don't drink coffee, probably have the world record for most texting/autocorrect mistakes ever made, and I don't talk to myself, I sing to myself. Sarcasm is my native language (being dramatic my second). I'm very passionate about writing and directing films, adventuring and exploring the world, leadership stuff, advocating for all things social progress-y, and just always striving to be a better human.

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