Chicago is one of the best movies ever made. Every technical aspect of it is flawless. The entire movie is built on Editing, in an extreme way. What sets it apart is the risks the movie puts into this aspect of the film; almost half of the movie takes place in the main character’s mind while the rest reflects reality with cuts back and forth between the two (which are usually polar opposites of each other). I consider it to be the best-edited movie I have ever seen.
Besides Editing all of the other fundamental components of cinema are a tremendous achievement as well. If you dig things like Cinematography, Costumes, Sound Mixing/Editing, and Art Direction this movie is like taking a trip to Disneyland when the Matterhorn and Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye are actually open on the same day.
The movie also has an interesting social commentary on fame, celebrity, and the desire and limits of both. The characters are horrible people, but charisma and being a phoney help them triumph and are certainly more important than being honest and sincere, at least to them.
A quick confession: When this movie came out I had no interest in seeing it. Musicals? Whatever. However, so many people that I knew were raving about it so I went to see it. I didn’t even plan on liking it. The opposite in fact; I had decided it sucked before the lights even went down.
I was wrong. It ended up being one of my favorite movies. I went to see it five times in the theatre. I recommended it to other people and when they saw it they loved it as well, also seeing it multiple times in the theatre.
Let’s dive in for an analysis of the major scenes in the movie.
Opening/All That Jazz
The movie opens with parallel storytelling of the two lead characters Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger) and Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) at a Jazz nightclub in Chicago in the Roaring Twenties. Velma is along with her sister, the star performer at the club. Just prior to arriving on this particular evening she has killed her sister and husband for having an affair.
My favorite part of this opening sequence is in the first 30 seconds of the movie and its a strange little detail to like. I like the Sound Mixing on Velma’s footsteps on the rainy road as she walks into the nightclub and the way the paper sounds as she tears a poster of her sister’s act from the brick wall outside. Sometimes it’s the small things that make something great for you.
Velma goes inside and performs “All That Jazz”, which is supposed to be performed by both her and her sister, alone.
In the audience is Roxie Hart, a wannabe star that longs for the glitz and glamour of the world of showbiz and hates her boring life and her dopey husband, Amos (John C. Reilly). She’s there with Fred Casely (Dominic West), who she believes to be a talent agent for nightclubs. It isn’t long before they leave the club to screw around at Roxie’s joint. It cuts back and forth between Roxie and Velma’s performance.
All in all, this opening is fairly conventional. However, there is a short, like 5 seconds, where we see Roxie as a performer. This is in her mind, which may not be clear to the audience initially since “the rules” of the movie have yet to be established.
Note: I still wasn’t sold on this movie after this sequence.
When Roxie learns she was duped by Fred and he wasn’t a nightclub agent she shoots him with her husband’s gun at their apartment.
This is where things get interesting. The song/sequence for “Funny Honey” is where they really introduce the structure of the movie.
It begins with her husband, Amos taking the fall for the murder claiming the victim was a burglar. Soon, it dissolves into Roxie singing a song about how great Amos is on a stage. The audience likely believes this is taking place in the future and not in her mind initially. However, two minutes and 55 seconds into this song the whole movie changes.
Roxie breaks character in this “performance” when Amos realizes that 2+2=4 in “real life”. It is now obvious that this performance isn’t real to the audience and at this point, the lyrics and performance of the song go from sweet to mean-spirited. The rules and structure of the movie have now been established.
Note: At the 2:55 second mark was a pleasant surprise for me when I first saw it. It was surprising and funny and at this point, I really started to give this movie a chance. I was surprised when it just kept getting better and better the longer it was on. This movie is fun, mean-spirited, and not politically correct. At all.
When You’re Good To Mama
After Roxie is arrested she is sent to prison. Here we meet “Mama” Morton (Queen Latifa), a crooked warden who gives advice and favors for a price.
All of the lead characters have at least one solo song, this is Latifa’s. The song is good, the performance is good but compared to some of the other solo songs it is second-tier.
Cell Block Tango
This is where the movie kicks into high gear. This is the scene that ensnares the audience for the rest of the runtime and doesn’t let go.
“Cell Block Tango” is basically a group of women prisoners telling how they are in jail for crimes they didn’t commit. It begins with drops of water hitting the sink as percussion and builds from there.
The cool part of this number is that each of the prisoners has a scarf that is used in their section. If the scarf is red they are really guilty and if it is white they are innocent. Only one is white.
All I Care About
Mama helps Roxie hire Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), a “greasy, Mick lawyer” that is the best Defense Attorney in the business.
This is fairly similar to “When Your Good To Mama” in that it is Richard Gere’s first solo song but I like it better because of the contrast of him only caring about money in real life while the lyrics of the song profess the opposite to be true.
We Both Reached For The Gun
Billy instructs Roxie on what to say during her press-conference verbatim. We see the press-conference intercut with the song portrayed in Roxie’s mind with Billy as a ventriloquist and her as a puppet.
This is one of my favorite scenes.
This is Roxie’s big, solo song (obviously). She sings about how, after she is found not guilty, she’ll take the celebrity and fame from her trial and parlay it into a musical career.
I Can’t Do It Alone
This is another solo song for Velma and my favorite one by far. Catherine Zeta-Jones works her ass off here.
Velma’s star is fading so she tries to cajole Roxie into teaming up to be a new act when they get sprung from the joint. She performs her dead sister’s part of their routine as well as their own.
This performance has Velma describing the performance (or maybe some of it is happening on a small scale; we don’t actually see any of the “real-life” version taking place in front of Roxie – just Velma talking to her about it) with Roxie imagining what it should really look like. Admittedly, Velma does say “Watch this!” but what exactly is “this?”. The audience has no idea.
This ambiguity is one of my favorite aspects of the scene.
This is probably the most polarizing scene in the movie. It’s my least favorite but I’ve talked to people that think its the best part of the whole movie.
Amos (dressed as a hobo) sings about how he’s invisible to the world. It isn’t flashy. It’s dull. Not very melodic. But fans of this scene will tell you that’s the whole point of the scene (and they’d be correct)!
It works in the context of the film, but I think my problem with it is that it just sticks out like a sore thumb from everything else in the movie. Definitely in the second-tier for sure.
Razzle Dazzle/The Tap Dance
This is probably my favorite part of the movie (it’s hard to pick one). Billy at the trial “razzle dazzles” the audience – I mean the jury and “tap dances” around the prosecution punching holes in their case.
There’s a smoothness to “Razzle Dazzle” that contrasts well with the roughness of the tap dance portion fantastically.
Roxie and Velma now freed from prison try to embark on showbiz careers and fail horribly. Their 15 minutes are up and nobody cares about them anymore. They decide to team-up and think the gimmick of them both being killers, that they may have some success.
This is the last number in the movie. This one is real as opposed to imaginary, which compliments and bookends neatly with “All That Jazz” at the beginning.
Chicago was produced for around $40 million dollars. It made over $300 million worldwide at the box office. It was nominated for twelve Academy Awards winning six (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress, Best Editing, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, and Best Sound).
Interestingly, John Travolta turned down the role of Billy Flynn because he didn’t understand how the editing would work, it didn’t make any sense to him. Considering he can’t read the words “Idina Menzel” off a teleprompter this should not be very surprising.
If you haven’t seen Chicago and are interested after reading this article you should give it a chance. You’ll probably enjoy it.