Chicago (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Rob Marshall
viewed: 03/05/03 at Loews Theatre at the Metreon, SF, CA

More fun than innovative or aesthetically pleasing, Chicago still struck me as reasonably high on entertainment, if not a particularly notable piece of “art.”

But what is “art” anyways, right? In this case, as in so many, it’s a mostly matter of opinion.

I wasn’t familiar with the original musical Chicago. Though I have somewhat of an affinity for musicals on celluloid, I haven’t seen much Theater and so am pretty uninformed about plays that have not been adapted for the screen. I understand, to some degree, that the handling of the musical numbers in the film version differ from the original stage productions in that they are envisioned as fantasies, and so staged outside of the narrative’s “world” largely. This is not a new convention in the least, and my guess is that in some ways it’s a way to perhaps make the pieces more “believeable” to a contemporary audience not as comfortable with the more typical traditions of musicals, like when suddenly an entire town bursts into a song and dance routine that magically they all know. Oddly, it’s just that surreality that appeals to me about a good musical.

I didn’t care for the general execution of the musical numbers in this film for the most part. They had a very “stage-y” quality to them, departed from the context of the general storyline, like fantastical “asides,” and very theatrical, almost like they were being performed on the Oscars stage. Largely, this was an overall aesthetic problem for me, and quite ironically, I thought that the songs themselves were very good. I also thought that the underlying story, with its eminent cynicism, and script itself were pretty good, too.

As for the performances, Catherine Zeta-Jones was excellent, all the way around. Queen Latifah’s one musical number was definitely the best single musical performance and she had some strong scenes, acting-wise. Renée Zellweger was okay, but seemed too skinny and waif-like a lot of the time. Richard Gere really shouldn’t be singing and dancing any more than I should, which is to say…at all.

My guess is that this film will top the Oscars this year, not because it is a great film (which it isn’t), but because it is entertaining. And despite the fact that the story is essentially an aptly cynical saga about media culture and fame, its buoyant, upbeat musical numbers give the film an almost escapist, “feel-good” sensation (the film literally depicts escapist fantasies in its flashiest moments), which contrasts with the other films up for top film this year. It’s been noted before that musicals were at their height of popularity during the Great Depression and WWII, and that it is easy to find such parallels in the current situation of our world. An interesting theory, though doubtful to imagine that the musical will ever regain its popularity as a form/genre in film, though it would be interesting to see.

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