On Second Thought: “Chicago”

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Note: This piece was originally written for and posted as part of MovieRob’s March Genre Grandeur, with the theme being favorite prison films as chosen by Jay of Life vs. Film.

Who doesn’t love a good musical? Plenty of people, but then again, they probably don’t like films that make them step outside of their respective repetitive film circles. The only thing you can hope for is that enough time will have passed that they’ll be convinced it’s now okay to give the film a chance. And if they’re lucky, time won’t have done too much damage to a well made film.

The Miramax Films film “Chicago”, based on the musical play of the same name by Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb and play by Maurine Dallas Watkins, still looks and feels like the big musical adaptation most other musical adaptations can only dream of being. It’s also, as it turns out, one of the few films that I own that can be considered a prison film. This helped make deciding which film to do for this month’s (March) Genre Grandeur, hosted by MovieRob, that much easier. When I first heard about this selection, made by Jay of Life vs. Film, I was intrigued. Did I have any film’s that fit this genre? I did, but none that are too outside of the box, which was just mildly unfortunate. I moved past this quickly as I really, REALLY wanted to see this film again. It’s been some time and I now had the perfect reason to do so. So, here we are. One of my favorite prison films and one of my favorite musical adaptations all rolled into one fantastic package! The film turns 15 this year, but when a film does reach this age, that doesn’t always mean it’s guaranteed to age well. This film, for now, may be one of the luckier ones.

Come Together

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The little things, as I like to say, add up. These small aspects of any given film make it what it is, and sometimes, like here, it makes the film become more than just some good or entertaining one. If you simply want that, go see some Summer blockbuster. If you want so much more with each viewing, especially as the film gets older, then all the smaller pieces must come together nicely. Without these things, this film wouldn’t have been able to amaze so many people and set a new standard for movie musicals.

When I say everything, I mean everything! The costumes, choreography, cinematography, sets and set decorations, etc. It all must look great and blend so well that you’d probably think you’d gone and pulled an Alice (“Wonderland” not “Resident Evil”). Fortunately this particular adaptation demanded this. The time period itself quite easily demanded this, and director Rob Marshall would’ve been foolish to not take full advantage of it. And so, everything still looks as big as it was intended to. All the glitz and glamour was captured and constantly on display as characters moved around and belted out catchy lyrics or just spoke, which surprised me most as I found myself in awe of what was before me. I knew what to expect, but that’s not how I reacted. Then, which is always a plus, the grand scale aimed for allowed for the time period to fully engulf me. I’ll grant you that perhaps it could be a tad more dramatic than the real thing, but does that really matter? Is that a bad thing with film? No and no. You got enough authenticity and are still able to be taken away, and given a film that provided enough escape. Isn’t that what films are supposed to do?

All of the above, and what I may not have mentioned, may still be amazing, but there’s one element that allows for them to come together. If a different approach had been used, I don’t know what the film would’ve looked like. Granted, I also don’t know what an alternative approach would’ve looked like, but it would’ve had its drawbacks. I certainly don’t think it would’ve been as smooth and consistent as it was. What I’m speaking of is the phenomenal editing done by Martin Walsh, who ended up winning an Academy Award for this film. Then, which I find can sometimes go hand in hand with editing, is the cinematography done by Dion Beebe, who was nominated for his work in this film. One, obviously, captures all the glitz, glamour and grand scale, while the other constructs a specific narrative, on top of the film’s overall narrative. But it’s because they work so well and bring everything together, that you get that flawless feeling and can enjoy the film a lot more. It’s go, go, go!! No slowing down, even when it seems slower.

Take the musical number “We Both Reached for the Gun” as a great example. This one, like some of the others, is doing so much in such a short amount of time, all in an effort to keep you deeply involved. With the cinematography, Beebe’s trying to capture all the moving pieces of the number. There’s so much to see that it makes me wonder what it was liking going through all the footage. At the same time, he’s moving around as if he’s in the audience and capturing different views of the action on stage, plus everything from the real world press conference. Now throw in all that editing and you’re practically, and enjoyably, losing your mind. It’s really a question of where don’t you look? So much to see, but so little time to do it in. One moment the shot’s on Richard Gere and Renée Zellwegger and the next it’s on the reporters dancing behind them. And sometimes it’s simply just getting different angles of all of this, all the while cutting back and forth from the real world events. Even though you know you’ve missed some moments of anything that was filmed, it doesn’t feel like it. What’s given isn’t just accepted because it was put before you as such, but because Walsh did his job that well. You’re never truly in need of more.

And then, there’s the “I Can’t Do It Alone” number. This number doesn’t have as many moving parts to keep track of, but it does feature more movement. The camera follows Catherine Zeta-Jones repeatedly and drags you along for the number. It’s how, when the camera’s shooting her from behind the bars of the prison corridor, it’s moving swiftly and you never lose focus or momentum during the number. Even when there’s subtler moments of the camera moving, you’re still completely in it. There’s always this smooth feeling as you move from thing to thing, and the shots constantly and quickly change because of the editing. And, of course, there’s some cuts back and forth to the real world, but definitely not as many. This also allows for longer shots when Zeta-Jones is dancing all over. You actually get to see her do more and that itself is exciting and worth seeing.

And I really can’t forget about the musical numbers as a whole. The numbers are big, flashy and fun! Also, because of the music by John Kander and lyrics by Ebb, the songs are infectious and it’s impossible not to sing along. From the moment the “Overture” started playing and segued into “All That Jazz” I was ready! I started off by whistling along and then waiting for the first lyric to come along. I never stopped afterwards. I’m surprised I had enough time to actually watch the film and think about all that was being presented. It’s also why, all these years and several times through of this film’s soundtrack and the cast recording with Bebe Neuwirth later, I can’t pick a favorite number. I LOVE them all. At worse, I’d say it’s unfortunate that director Rob Marshall and writer Bill Condon couldn’t find a way to make the other numbers work in this film. That being said, I get why they were probably left out. They didn’t want some unnecessarily lengthy film, and they wanted to make sure it was as accessible as possible.

Three Ring Circus

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One of the great things about revisiting films, no matter how old or how much you love them, is what you can pick up this time around. Sometimes it’s just little things, and other times it’s things that make you see the film differently. Perhaps not in some drastic new way, but enough, and if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to love the film even more. Of late I’ve found that some of the best films have provided new ways to view it or the world at large. In this case, a film getting older really is for the better.

With this being a prison film, and a delightfully crazy one at that, there’s also a fair amount of time spent in a courtroom. Which is where I noticed something wonderful. This film now, maybe more so than ever, really serves as a kind of commentary on today’s world. Today’s trials can become something akin to a circus act. Seeking fame and knocking down as many people as possible is one idea explored in this film, another is the obsession the public has with murder trials. I’m certain too you could make the case for any trial. While this film is easily depicting the obsession as it probably existed in the 1920’s, and even when the musical originally opened, it’s even stranger because of how it unintentionally critiques society now.

Today, as most I’m sure are well aware, especially if you live in the United States, when there’s a murder trial going on, it’s impossible to avoid hearing about it. However, with social media and a 24 hour news cycle, following it is easier than ever. Even when you really don’t give a damn about who’s on trial, you still somehow hear enough to be able to keep up with those who force you to converse on the topic. Take the semi-recent high profile trials of Casey Anthony and Amanda Knox, which really shows how little I focus on trials of any sort. Everyone was seemingly watching and you could hardly find a channel that wasn’t covering these women at some point during any given day. Then there are other high profile cases that occurred at least over a decade ago. Scott Peterson, Michael Jackson (sorry, had to mention it), and, of course, O.J. Simpson. The primary element that differentiates these three is social media. Yes the internet was a major player, with two of the latter trials listed, as were traditional media outlets, but certainly not to the level they’d achieve if they were being held today. Everyone has an opinion, but it’s not just one to simply state and be done with. No, it’s a passionate one that I’m sure led to many heated arguments between friends and family.

But the obsession doesn’t stop there. Possibly more so today, but similarly to what’s been portrayed in this film, the desire to be viewed positively and known and loved is big. While most of the people who end up on trial may not be seeking the attention or any other kind of fame, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t some behind the scenes alterations to the accused’s image to beef up positivity. Appearances are everything. So, much as Zellwegger undergoes an image change, which ends up making her come off as cute, adorable, easily sympathetic and somebody who couldn’t possibly commit murder, we see those accused look polished in ways they’ve probably never been before.

But it’s not just the accused who undergo changes. On this, I’m actually just guessing as I don’t know how many lawyers or judges have been subject to this same type of obsession, but that doesn’t change the fact that they too could become obsessions of some sort to the public at large. Take for instance, Marcia Clark, who just recently reentered the pop culture and news scene with the award winning miniseries “The People v O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story”. She ended up changing her appearance and trying to be different than what so many viewed her as, which also went well beyond just her looks. Did it ultimately help or hurt her case? That’s up for debate. But, she understood the importance of ones image, even when it wasn’t a fair part of criticism, and did all she could to change and win people over. If she can go through this and make changes to her appearance because of those obsessed with her, why not others? If it happens to one person, chances are it’ll happen again and again, if it hasn’t already.

With so many moving parts, each one just as important as the other, how does anyone keep it all organized? How do they not go crazy? Perhaps, in part, this type of frenzy is exactly what allows for the public to so easily get involved. It’s why it’s so easy to invest so much of ones time in a single case.

Forget Likability

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While the film doesn’t really have any real negative aspects, it still, like all films, has at least one minor problem that needs addressing. Mind you, at the same time, I feel this doesn’t matter one way or the other as it’s impact is practically nonexistent.

The characters are fun to watch. They’re horrible people in so many ways, and yet, there’s something missing. I’ve been struggling with this and only just now feel like I’ve come up with something that makes a tiny bit of sense. I don’t know why I like these characters. If I were to be asked, “Why do you like these characters?”, I couldn’t really give a reply. There’s no reason why. I just do. I get that not all characters are likable in the traditional sense, and that they also don’t have to be, but somehow that’s not what this feels like. Perhaps this is just a combination of time and bias. I’ve seen this film so many times in the last 15 years, plus listened to various cast recordings from the recent stage presentations, that I can’t see any problems with the characters. I just see them for the vile and corrupt people that they are. Well, except for John C. Reilly’s Amos. He’s the kindest of them all, but even this serves as a reason to not like him. Now saying that, I must admit, that’s probably part of why I can like them all so much, even without knowing why. There’s something fun about this type of anti-hero(ine) and it’s impossible to not get wrapped up in all of their antics and carried away on an exciting ride!

While it seems weird not to be able to know why you like any of the characters, let alone even one, in this case, it’s oddly refreshing. I don’t have to nit pick and over-analyze the characters and their motives. This film so clearly and expertly demonstrates all that, and still has you walking away having enjoyed the various exploits. Because of this, in a different way I don’t feel I’ve had to deal with, it just makes it easier to get caught up in the film. Here’s another way all the elements are still coming together to deliver a finely made product. Sometimes characters missteps are fine. They suck when noticed, but don’t draw too much attention away and still create a very good overall film. Now that I’ve noticed this, I’m hoping it’s the last time this is an issue. I might not be able to overlook it and all it takes is one thing to ruin a perfectly good film.

Originally released: Dec. 27, 2002 (Limited) and Jan. 24, 2003 (Wide)

Director: Rob Marshall

Writer: Bill Condon

Starring: Renée Zellwegger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, Queen Latifah, John C. Reilly, Lucy Liu, Taye Diggs, Colm Feore, Christine Baranski, Dominic West, Mýa Harrison, Deidre Goodwein, Denise Faye, Ekaterina Chtchelkanova and Susan Misner

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