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From Under A Rock: Chicago

May 14, 2016 | Posted by Michael Ornelas
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From Under A Rock: Chicago  


You know, this is our 41st edition of From Under A Rock, and we have watched a variety of movies. And unless you count The Muppet Christmas Carol, I think this is our first musical. It’s pretty cool that we keep finding a wide variety of movies to tackle.

You only get one first time, and for some people, it comes later than it does for others. This particular column is about documenting the first viewing of a “classic” movie or TV show determined at the discretion of Aaron Hubbard and Michael Ornelas in alternation.

Last week Michael forced Aaron’s eyes toward the screen while watching A Clockwork Orange. This week Aaron takes Michael out from under the proverbial rock with the 2003 Best Picture winner Chicago.

Released: December 27th, 2002
Directed by: Rob Marshall
Written by: Bill Condon
Renee Zellweger as Roxie Hart
Catherine Zeta-Jones as Velma Kelly
Richard Gere as Billy Flynn
Queen Latifah as Matron “Mama” Morton
John C. Reilly as Amos Hart

Aaron Hubbard: I haven’t watched this in a few years, so I was somewhat apprehensive about critically analyzing a movie I would classify as a “guilty pleasure”. As it turns out, I didn’t really need to be. I still had a ton of fun watching this one.

Michael Ornelas: Yeah, I enjoyed it, although it’s not “my kind” of movie. My favorite musical is Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny so…yeah. I don’t know if I’d call this “Best Picture” good, but it was good. Even just looking at the other nominees, I’d have given it Gangs of New York. That said, this won, and this is the movie we’re here to discuss. So let’s get to it.
From Stage to Screen
Aaron: Musicals are sometimes a tough sell, especially when it semi-realistic as opposed to animated. For one, you have to address the fact that people don’t usually spontaneously burst into well-rehearsed song and dance numbers. Then you have to have good songs that are entertaining and move the plot along. This film finds a creative solution to the first problem by having the songs be presented as fantasy. Roxie Hart wants to be a stage performer, so she sees her life as a performance. We get the real story, and we get the stage performances. I’ve always thought this was a clever trick and really suits the story they are telling.

Michael: One of the most unique things about this stage adaptation is the fact that the stage was still very much a part of the film. Usually in musical movies, the songs are incorporated into the real world. In Chicago, we simply cut to the stage and watch a performance take place there intercut with the reality of the film. I actually really enjoyed that because after spending a couple years of my life in New York City, I have an affinity for Broadway. And as Aaron said, the use of songs in this film were spot-on as they progressed plot as well as provided us characterization of Roxie. The music gave us plenty to analyze about what was happening in the protagonist’s head, and I really appreciated that.

Aaron: There’s a few here that are just fun, like “The Cell Block Tango”, but there’s a few here that really stick out for me. “Razzle Dazzle” and “We Both Reached For The Gun” are great in how they mix the Vaudevillian stage with the real world sets, something that you couldn’t do on stage. But what I really like is how Roxie’s desires inform “When You’re Good To Mama” and “All I Care About Is Love”, two songs that seem like standard character introductions. But they are just what Roxie wants; Morton doesn’t really care about her, and Billy certainly doesn’t care about “love”; they just want her money. It’s a clever subversion and helps establish the idea that most of the songs are in Roxie’s head. Conversely, while I enjoy “Mr. Cellophane” for its ideas, the song is in Amos’ head and kind of muddles the overall idea a bit.
The Price Tag of Fame
Michael: Roxie Hart is a character driven by the desire to live famously. When the guy who promised her a chance is revealed to have lied to her, she murders him. She rubs elbows with Velma Kelly and Mama Morton in prison, but they’re not going to do anything for her. She then tries to ride the notoriety of her murder trial to get to the next step in her career, and even that falls through. If you subscribe to the notion that the songs are rooted in fantasy, then even with the ending, she never really does make it. But she was willing to sacrifice her entire personhood to be famous and, sadly, that’s a relatable struggle for many. As a resident in Los Angeles, I watch friends sacrifice their values in exchange for opportunity and it’s heartbreaking. Roxie Hart is a truly sympathetic character in how misguided and tragic she is. That’s what resonated with me the most about this film.

Aaron: Well, the first and last numbers are on real stages with real audiences. So Roxie is famous, but she has to share the spotlight with someone she hates. I find Roxie to be an unsympathetic but understandable character. And really, this film doesn’t have any morally strong protagonists. It’s about how corrupt individuals can be treated as celebrities and be forgiven by people in general as long as they entertain us. Roxie gets away with murder and we are in on the joke. It’s telling that the only people who get hurt most are Amos and the one girl who hangs in spite of her innocence.

Michael: Well, except for Bill Cosby. I don’t think we’re forgiving him. But yeah, we don’t hold the “famous” accountable most of the time, and it’s a broken system. The way this movie highlights this fact is actually the highlight of the film for me. I actually think this is the theme that caused the movie to get over so well with The Academy — it satirizes the industry in which they work.
Technical Mastery
Aaron: This movie was introduced to me in my film class as an example of how “Mise en Scene” can be used to tell a story visually, even without the dialogue. Chicago is a movie that works on two planes, but if it was just “hey here’s people singing” to separate them, it wouldn’t work as well. The real Chicago uses largely monochrome colors, plain wardrobe choices, and a degree of grit. The stage scenes have elaborate costumes and exaggerated color palettes, and look incredibly polished. That dissonance allows us to tell the difference even when it’s cutting between the real and fantasy rather quickly. It’s not exactly subtle, but it’s not meant to be; it’s an over-the-top musical, after all. But it certainly made an impression on me as a fledgling critic, and I’ve paid attention to that sort of thing ever since. It has helped me when watching films like American Psycho.

Michael: To add to the way the wardrobe and staging made the sequences differentiate themselves from one another, the camerawork was also much simpler during the “real” portions. I picked up on the fact that tracking shots and “playing to the crowd” (the lens) were plentiful in the musical numbers while the “real” scenes had much more basic camera coverage. It’s a simple thing like that that really does make this movie an achievement in storytelling.

Aaron: The film got 6 Academy Awards, and most of them were actually in technical departments. Something that really stood out to me was the sound editing, which isn’t something I normally notice. But knowing that the songs aren’t performed live, and that somebody has to go in and make sure the lyrics match all the lip movements really made it sink in for me. There’s some scenes where it’s almost impossible for me to tell they aren’t live performances, despite knowing that they aren’t.

Aaron: Chicago isn’t quite a “great” movie, but it’s a really good one with solid performances. For me, the energy and fun of the film is infectious, and I always remember those things most. Despite that, the film’s real message is refreshingly cynical, and it makes me question how I look at celebrity and how we often give them too much leeway. If criminals can be celebrities, celebrities can also be criminals, right?


Michael: I enjoyed this more than I expected to. I don’t think it’s a masterpiece or a worthy “Best Picture” winner, but it’s truly not a bad film. The musical numbers worked, the character development of Roxie was excellent, the supporting cast was truly memorable, and the plot engaged me throughout. I probably won’t feel compelled to watch this again, but I’m glad I watched it. You should too if you haven’t yet if for nothing more than to be one step closer to seeing all the Best Picture winners.


Michael: All that time spent in Chicago and not a single Chicago-style hot dog? This movie was a lie…

Aaron: Funny thing; this was my first time seeing Richard Gere and I had no clue that wasn’t his real accent until I watched Primal Fear.

Michael: See? LIES!

What’s your favorite musical film?

Next week:

Michael: I believe I’ve only seen my next pick once and it was a loooooong time ago. But it’s a great flick with a lot of name value.
Aaron: I’ve heard this movie brought up a lot, and I know there’s a lot of talent on screen and behind the camera. So I’m genuinely excited to see this one.

Michael: It’s a great thriller. I suspect that you know a lot more about it than you should (for maximum effect), but since it’ll be my second viewing, I’ll kind of get to see it through the same lens. I just would hope that you have as little spoiled as possible for your first time.

What’s in the box?

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Check out our past reviews!
Mission: Impossible, They Live, Marvel’s Daredevil, The Silence of the Lambs, 12 Angry Men, The Usual Suspects, The Boondock Saints, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Iron Giant, Fargo, American Psycho, 28 Days Later, Frankenstein, Crank, The Godfather: Part II, American Beauty, Rocky, Alien, Spaceballs, Star Wars: Clone Wars, The Muppets Christmas Carol, Reservoir Dogs, Superman: The Movie, Lethal Weapon, Double Indemnity, Groundhog Day, The Departed, Breaking Bad, Shane, Glengarry Glen Ross, Blue Ruin, Office Space, The Batman Superman Movie: World’s Finest, Drive, Memoirs of a Geisha, Let the Right One In, Apocalypse Now, Aliens, The Incredible Hulk, A Clockwork Orange, Chicago

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The final score: review Good
The 411
Chicago isn't exactly a great movie, but that doesn't stop it from being great fun. There's an infectious enthusiasm to the music scenes and a wry cynicism to the "real" story. It was the first successful Hollywood musical in decades, and holds up pretty well 14 years later. If you're a fan of the genre or like to check "Best Picture" winners off your list, you could do a lot worse.