The National Catholic Review
Chicago

In October 1927, with the release of “The Jazz Singer,” sound movies became commercially viable. In October 1929 the stock market crashed. Strange as it seems, the two events are closely related in cultural history. During the final two years of the boom, the movie industry had the money to wire its studios and theaters for the new medium. It developed the technology and techniques to allow actors to move and speak at the same time, no easy feat when you think about it. It learned to do mixing and dubbing. The studio orchestra could be “married into” the sound track in post-production, and singers could re-record the numbers they breathlessly mimed during athletic dance numbers.

 

After the economy collapsed, this new medium—and it is a very different medium from the silents—had the pieces in place to provide a readily available escape from joblessness into a world of total fantasy. In the 1930’s the film-going public flocked to the movies and began its on-again/off-again love affair with the Hollywood musical. For 15 cents or a quarter, one could forget breadlines and foreclosures and enter the sophisticated world of Fred and Ginger, the innocent world of Mickey and Judy, the childlike world of Shirley and Bojangles and the geometric world of Busby Berkeley and 100 tap-dancing chorus girls. In a world of crippling uncertainty, musicals provided the predictable happy ending.

The war years brought prosperity at home and in some ways ended the age of uncertainty. The workers on the home front faced an enemy much more easily identified than “economic conditions.” As clarity waxed, the musical waned. One would think that audiences would seek glittery escape from the horrors of war, but in fact wartime provided a lean season for the film musical: a few Betty Huttons and bands-entertaining-the-troops movies, and that was about it.

The golden age of the musical, the cold war period, came as the world faced the age of uncertainty brought about by fear of imminent nuclear annihilation. This was the era of the baby-blue extravaganzas of Gene Kelly and the Arthur Freed production unit at MGM, of Rogers and Hammerstein, of “The Music Man,” “The Sound of Music” and “My Fair Lady.” Then it all ended. Television provided all the fantasy we needed; newer styles of rock music had little compatibility with a narrative thread; Watergate and Vietnam punctured the fantasy world, just as certainly as Hitler had.

Many of the relatively recent attempts to revive the genre have an oddly dark side to them: “West Side Story” and gang wars, “Cabaret” and Nazis, “All That Jazz” and self-destruction. The beautiful girl and the handsome boy no longer necessarily embrace during the finale. Film historians now wonder if these shadowy musicals even belong in the same genre as “Singin’ in the Rain.”

Chicago steps into the tapshoes of last year’s “Moulin Rouge.” Where do these two films stand in their cultural context and in the history of the musical? Since the towers fell and we began removing our shoes in airports, we have certainly entered another age of uncertainty. Where will death next fall from the sky? The climate of doubt seems to invite another age of musicals, and the critical and commercial success of both films indicates the public’s desire to retreat once more into a darkened world of total fantasy, where life is glimpsed through the imagination of starry-eyed fictional characters.

“Chicago” is an old-fashioned musical garbed in the day-glo and spandex of the present. Set in prohibition-era Chicago, it features a traditional heroine-triumphs-over-adversity finale that mists the eye of all but the most cynical. Like the dark musicals, it explores a shadowy demi-monde of gangsters and their ladies, and features murders, a gloriously corrupt lawyer and one hanging. Like a contemporary MTV video, it cuts relentlessly during the musical numbers, showing body parts rather than dancers. It knows its contemporary audience and places few burdens upon the attention span. It wastes little time with narrative and skips breathlessly from one extravagant number to the next without missing a step. While “Cabaret” was a serious drama interrupted by musical commentary, “Chicago” is a musical revue tied together by a story line.

This tension between old and new makes “Chicago” work brilliantly. In the story line, it presents a trenchant social commentary on our contemporary infatuation with 10-minutes-of-fame celebrities, while the musical numbers offer the very flash and dash that it criticizes. Fame may be a sand castle built on the tide line, but as the film points out, we delight in watching it go up. And then delight even more when it is washed away by the irresistible avarice of the sea. By its hypnotic energy, “Chicago” forces us to observe and enjoy, and then it convicts us of architectural voyeurism.

Here’s how it works. Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger) longs for fame on the stage. It is her escape route from a dull marriage and a lackluster affair. As she watches Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) strut her long-legged stuff in a speakeasy, she fantasizes about parlaying her own limited talent into celebrity. Talent, as we all know, has nothing to do with celebrity. When Roxie whacks her boyfriend, she becomes the darling of the Chicago press, a special protégée of the oily reporter Mary Sunshine (Christine Baranski). In Roxie’s mind, her jail cell is the greenroom of stardom. To this end, she engages the services of Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), a trial lawyer who would make F. Lee Bailey look like Learned Hand. Billy promises acquittal and celebrity, but warns of terrible consequences if she tries to upstage him in front of reporters.

In whirlwinds of radio and tabloids, fame is a leaky balloon in need of constant infusions of new hot air. Roxie’s story inevitably grows stale. Gorgeous trophy wives ice their husband’s overheated libidos, and push Roxie off the front page as the alleged ladies and gentlemen of the press inflate these new sensations for their audiences. The competition for headlines becomes a blood sport, and Roxie learns how to play it rough with the best of them.

Renée Zellweger’s Roxie begins as a naïve, starstruck kid, abused by a sleaze who promises an audition in exchange for domestic entertainment. When Roxie discovers his wife and five children, he makes a rapid transition from liar and philanderer to corpse. Our sympathies clearly rest with Roxie, but in jail her mercenary side emerges like a rainbow after a storm on Lake Michigan. She can use people just as callously as she was victimized herself. But her toughness comes across as spunk rather than malice. We have to admire her grit. She exudes a kind of fascinating bad-girl, amoral charm. We want her to play rough in a rough game and win. That’s why her finale works so well. It’s hokey, and we see it coming, but love it anyway.

The hokum is deliberate. Catherine Zeta-Jones shimmies into the spotlight with brassy bravado. With her phony Louise Brooks wig, she pretends to be someone else, just as she pretends to be a sister act when she solos. No one really cares; they love the pretense. Renée Zellweger and Richard Gere have less obvious musical talent, but that’s the whole point. Roxie and Billy command the spotlight with sheer bluff and bluster. In a wonderful riff, Billy tap-dances around the courtroom, his feet commenting that the law is just another form of showbiz. To the hoofer belong the spoils. He doesn’t sing very well, but neither did Fred Astaire.

The supporting roles provide the variety and pacing that enriches this type of revue musical. The venal prison guard (Queen Latifah, the rap singer turned actor) belts out her own glittery, lowdown jazz ode to money as costumed and choreographed in Roxie’s starstruck imagination. John C. Reilly plays Amos Hart, Roxie’s longsuffering husband, the only character in the film without pretense or aspiration. Dressed in tattered cutaways, like a bulkier Charlie Chaplin, he sings alone on a bare stage as Mr. Cellophane, totally transparent, with no character of his own to offer those who perceive him. His quiet lament provides a breather amid the sparklers exploding around him.

Rob Marshall, the director, did the choreography himself. The dancing is closer to traditional jazz dance and vaudeville styles than the slide-and-strut style of Bob Fosse, who staged the Broadway version in 1975. He has maintained the sultry, slinky in-your-face flavor of Fosse, which oddly seems more exuberant than suggestive, more a celebration of sexuality than its commercialization.

Celebration may hold the key to the success of “Chicago.” In an age of uncertainty such as this, we can’t escape from our problems, nor deny them. Amid wars and rumors of wars, we desperately need something to celebrate.

Richard A. Blake, S.J., is professor of fine arts and co-director of the film studies program at Boston College.

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