Blue Coupe 

 

Chicago -- DVD

Miramax Home Entertainment

2003

 

Chicago -- audio CD

Epic Records 2003

All That Jazz -- DVD

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

2003

 

 

Reviewed by Tony Buchsbaum

 

 

 

 

 

The last film legendary director and choreographer Bob Fosse made was All That Jazz. The film's opening image is the very 70s logo made out of hot white lights. It starts off dark, and as the electricity is dialed up gradually, the logo lights up.

It's fitting, then, that Chicago opens in more or less the same way, with that film's logo made of mostly dark lights, with some of them even flickering weakly. It seems to me this is director Rob Marshall's subtle tribute to the man whose influence can be felt throughout Chicago.

But the tribute doesn't end there. Even in the opening number, "And All That Jazz," the ghost of Bob Fosse hangs about. In the languorous way that arms are draped over chairs and shoulders. In the bored, sophisticated expressions of the portraits in a wall mural. In the bowler hat and black attire of the dancers on-stage, an homage to Fosse's signature style as well as to his own unforgettable film Cabaret.

Is there anything wrong with so many references to Fosse? Hardly. For without Fosse's vision, there would be no Chicago. Rob Marshall has made it his own, but it was Fosse's first.

That opening number sets up a brilliant film. We see Velma Kelly, the star, strutting her stuff on the stage. When Catherine Zeta-Jones rises from beneath the stage and starts to sing, her hair in a black bob, her eyes ebony orbs of innuendo, the movie is made. Then and there, you're transported. Part of it is seeing Zeta-Jones sing, and part of it is seeing her vamp it to the sky, and part of it is just the amazing choices of the director.

There's a sequence of shots here, as Velma tosses her head as a signal to the spotlight man. She wants her sister's spotlight on her. In three quick cuts, Marshall makes this film his own. From Velma's toss of her head to the spotlight as it swivels to her, then to a long shot of the stage as the light floats quickly to the right, lighting up Velma with twice the intensity she had a moment before.

Though I can't begin to tell you why that works so well, I believe it has a lot to do with the fact that this film is not so much about what happens on the stage as it is about what happens backstage. What makes a star? What sells tickets? What is entertainment?

From there, the film unfolds rapidly, with wit and intelligence and highly-refined craftwork. Zeta-Jones rips into Velma with a ferocity I can't recall in movies in a long time. Her co-star, Renee Zellweger, inhabits Roxie Hart with the same gusto, disappearing into the role completely. While Velma's all black hair and dark motives, Roxie is all blonde waves and eye-batting innocence. Both have been charged with murder, both are on Murderess Row at the Cook County Jail, and both have the same lawyer, Billy Flynn (played to the farcical hilt by Richard Gere), who has all but guaranteed to get them both off.

As Roxie's star rises, Velma's falls, in a sort of twisted take on A Star is Born. Roxie, no slouch, learns the tricks of Velma's trade -- then outdoes her. Roxie thinks on her feet. She's smarter than Velma, who relies on her fame to get her off and is almost undone by Roxie's moxie. An unknown, Roxie is thrust into the limelight and basks in it. A wannabe, once in the light she behaves as if she was born in it.

More than anything else, what makes Chicago work is Marshall's on-the-mark direction and choreography. His camerawork is more than fluid; it's ethereal. The film happens in two worlds: the stark reality of the jailhouse where Velma and Roxie are being held, and Roxie's imagination, where all the musical numbers occur. Roxie so much wants into the world of vaudeville that she imagines the songs as elaborate stage pieces. This makes the film a much more interesting experience than the stage version, which is more of a series of songs that merely suggest a story. Here, the characters create the story, and it gives the musical numbers a reason to be there. Hardly necessary in a musical, but inspired nonetheless, for it brings a heretofore ignored dimension to every character. Reality is offset by Roxie's creative reality.

As it turns out, Roxie's imagination would make a great Broadway musical. Marshall's choreography is inspired; he simply and effectively uses dance to reveal character, comment on the action, and move the story along. As Richard Gere tap dances his way through the trail of Roxie Hart, for example, he intercuts Gere performing an actual tap number, underlining the irony with a thick black marker.

In "Cell Block Tango," in which six murderesses dance and sing their way through the stories behind their crimes, Marshall's work is jaw-dropping. The dance, the camerawork, the editing, the lighting: it all fuses in a way that's both minimalist and baroque. There's a great deal to absorb, but it's presented elegantly, in an angry play of blacks and reds.

Contrast this with the opulent-by-contrast "When You're Good to Mama," Queen Latifah's song near the start of the film. It introduces her character, Mama Morton, as if she were ruling an ornate vaudeville theater. All gold sequins and feather boas, Latifah makes this song her own. It's a tour de force.

As you watch Chicago, you do so with the keen understanding that Rob Marshall loves movies and musicals. When we first see Velma, to cite one example, as she steps out of a cab and walks down the alley toward the stage door, she's shot from very low to the ground, and we see her shoes click-clacking along the pavement. This is Marshall's nod to the opening of Funny Girl, when Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice is seen doing the same thing, almost sashaying down the alley toward the stage door. Marshall is saying, I'm the new kid on the block, and there are people to acknowledge.

The songs of Chicago, by John Kander and Fred Ebb, have lost none of their magic, though the movie has lost some of the songs. The only ones kept were the ones that fit into Roxie's creative reality. That's why the biting "Class," sung by Mama Morton and Velma Kelly, was cut; because it's sung in a scene that has nothing to do with Roxie Hart: she could not have imagined it. But so many gems are there that you hardly notice. "And All That Jazz," "Cell Block Tango," "When You're Good to Mama," "Roxie," "I Can't Do It Alone," "Mister Cellophane" (performed with heartbreaking sincerity by John C. Reilly), the sparkling "Nowadays." It doesn't get much better. There's even a new song, sung over the closing credits, "I Move On," performed by Zeta-Jones and Zellweger.

I didn't expect to like Chicago because I wasn't a fan of the stage version. But the film is electric, alive right from the start. It more than deserved the Oscar for Best Picture of 2002.

* * *

For anyone who likes Chicago, its first cousin All That Jazz is Bob Fosse's ode to his own suicidal work habits, womanizing, and near-fatal heart attack. Starring Roy Scheider as Joe Gideon, it's as autobiographical as you can get without filming your own auto-documentary. It's a truly eye-popping film that begins with the now-famous sequence in which Gideon auditions a theater full of Broadway hopefuls, dancing en masse to George Benson's anthemic "On Broadway."

Fosse populates the film with fascinating faces. Ann Reinking plays, essentially, herself, Gideon's lover. Leland Palmer plays Gideon's ex-wife, essentially Gwen Verdon. Jessica Lange plays the Angel, with whom Gideon flirts as he approaches death. And Erzebet Foldi plays Gideon's daughter Michelle, who inherited her father's dancing genes.

The film covers a lot of territory. Gideon plans a new Broadway musical while in the midst of editing a film about a stand-up comedian, which in Fosse's real life was Lenny, starring Dustin Hoffman as Lenny Bruce. The editing isn't going as well as Gideon wants, and he has a sometimes-great, sometimes-terrible time shaping his new musical and putting its composer and producers through hell as he tries to make it his own, with lots of sex and provocative choreography.

All this activity takes its toll on Gideon, and when he has a heart attack and open heart surgery, his drug-addled mind conjures elaborate production numbers starring Reinking, Palmer, and Foldi, urging him to get his life together and not die.

By turns funny, shocking, and intensely creative, All That Jazz, while not anything like Chicago, has a raw power all its own.

* * *

Extras:

The Chicago soundtrack was reissued soon after its original release. The limited edition features the original CD and a bonus DVD that includes a brief making-of documentary and the video of "And All That Jazz."

The Chicago DVD offers the cut song "Class," a behind-the-scenes featurette, and feature-length commentary by Rob Marshall and screenwriter Bill Condon.

All That Jazz features a scene-specific commentary by and separate interviews with Roy Scheider, the film's trailer, and five clips of Bob Fosse directing.

If there's any disappointment here, it's with Chicago: I wish the DVD's producers had seen the wisdom in providing much more of the film's archival material on a second disc. After all, the film did win Best Picture, yet in this package we don't even get the trailer. A small quibble? Perhaps. But all that jazz would have been nice. | September 2003

 

Tony Buchsbaum is the author of Total Eclipse. At night he works on another novel and a screenplay. Days, he writes advertising copy in Lawrenceville, NJ, where he lives with his wife and sons.

 

That opening number sets up a brilliant film. We see Velma Kelly, the star, strutting her stuff on the stage. When Catherine Zeta-Jones rises from beneath the stage and starts to sing, her hair in a black bob, her eyes ebony orbs of innuendo, the movie is made. Then and there, you're transported. Part of it is seeing Zeta-Jones sing, and part of it is seeing her vamp it to the sky, and part of it is just the amazing choices of the director.

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