For a long time, musicals were a mainstay of Hollywood's offerings, reaping both critical praise and box office success. For a variety of reasons, they eventually all but disappeared, only to return in - of all things - Disney's animated features. Those pictures ruled the roost for a while, but they also eventually dried up, with only odd efforts such as "Dancer in the Dark" keeping the genre alive.
In keeping with the ebb and flow of popularity, "Moulin Rouge" brought the musical back into the mainstream, albeit in something rather different from that offered by the likes of Rodgers and Hammerstein or even Bob Fosse.
Now along comes "Chicago," the filmed adaptation that fits in far better with that latter talent. That's because it's based on Fosse, John Kander and Fred Ebb's 1975 Broadway musical that finally received its due accolades with its 1996 revival.
Recipient of numerous Tony nominations and wins, the musical was inspired by real-life murder trials in Chicago's roaring '20s as well as various stage or film adaptations of that event. In fashioning their adaptation, director Rob Marshall (TV's "Annie") and screenwriter Bill Condon ("Gods and Monsters," "Sister, Sister") have taken Fosse and company's original story and staged the musical numbers as symbolic representations or fantasies about what's happened or is currently occurring.
In other words, rather than the characters suddenly breaking into song in the middle of an otherwise non-musical moment, most of the numbers here take place inside characters' heads and/or are metaphorical in nature and deliver exposition, desires, dreams and any other number of storytelling elements and character attributes.
Some of the better ones, in terms of both song and staging include "Cell Block Tangle" where various inmates on death row explain both their innocence and how they got there. There's also the rousing "When You're Good to Momma" about a corrupt prison official, as well as "Razzle Dazzle" where we see a representation of how lawyers manipulate their clients' words as well as the media like puppets.
Such written descriptions don't do the numbers justice, as they're often completely engrossing and entertaining. What makes most of them work so well is that Marshall, who also served as the choreographer, cinematographer Dion Beebe ("Equilibrium," "Charlotte Gray") and production designer John Myrhe ("Ali," "X-Men") have made them look like such highly stylized numbers on the theatrical stage.
Rather than inserting them into the film's various settings - or worse yet, out into the streets or countryside as some former musicals have done - the numbers appear in a sort of surreal plane or dimension. The resultant feel is much like that of some Broadway plays or musicals where the numbers take place off to the side or otherwise away from the rest of the production.
While there are some fabulous numbers offered here, not all of them are showstoppers, however, and it seems like most of the better ones - including the well-known "All That Jazz" - occur in the film's first half. Like most any Fosse musical, many of the numbers here include the ever-present array of limber and writhing showgirls cavorting about the stage. While visually arresting, their presence does give the effort something of a dated or at least retro feel.
What may surprise viewers are the choices made to play the story's three main leads. Rather than going with those in some current version of the stage production, the filmmakers chose marquee names including Renee Zellweger ("White Oleander," "Bridget Jones's Diary"), Catherine Zeta-Jones ("America's Sweethearts," "Traffic") and Richard Gere ("Unfaithful," "The Mothman Prophecies").
Although they may not seem the most likely choices for a song and dance extravaganza, Gere and Zeta-Jones do have theatrical musical backgrounds. The three deliver solid performances and certainly don't embarrass themselves in any of their individual or collective numbers.
Gere gets the most mileage out of his slick lawyer character, while Zellweger makes for a credible, aspiring singer turned fame seeker. Zeta-Jones, on the other hand, might look stunning and perfectly play the part of the vamp, but she's limited by a more weakly written character. All are "guilty" of overacting from time to time, but that's purposefully done to stick with the nature of the production.
That said, they aren't as impressive as Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor in "Moulin Rouge," and the characters they inhabit often border a bit too much on caricature rather than the real thing. That isn't surprising considering the nature of the plot and underlying "dramatic" story, both of which aren't played straight, but thankfully avoids the hyper-kinetic goofiness of parts of "Moulin Rouge."
While its satirical look at crime, corruption, the media and seeking fame and celebrity at all costs still resonates today as much as it did back in the '20s, there's not a great deal of depth. Even so, such material provides for some laughs and the story provides a decent enough platform from which the engaging and clearly entertaining numbers can originate.
Some of them involve winning performances from the likes of Queen Latifah ("Brown Sugar," "The Bone Collector") and John C. Reilly ("The Hours," "Gangs of New York"). Taye Diggs ("Equilibrium," "Brown Sugar"), Christine Baranski ("Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas," "Bowfinger") and Lucy Liu ("Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever," "Charlie's Angels") also appear in smaller roles.
Not the best movie musical you'll ever see, but certainly rather entertaining and featuring some terrifically staged numbers, "Chicago" will have you tapping your toes and humming along with its various songs long after you leave the theater. It rates as a 7 out of 10.