'If you can't be famous, be infamous' is the tagline for choreographer-director Rob Marshall's debut film Chicago of 13 Oscar nominations fame. And just about every major character in the film lives up to it all the way to the dazzling denouement.
A screen adaptation of Bob Fosse's stage musical of 1975, which in turn was a spin on a 1926 play by Maurine Dallas Watkins, Chicago seems to have roots that run almost as deep and revered as our Devdas. There have also been a couple of screen versions of this story (minus the song and dance), notably the 1942 film Roxie Hart featuring Ginger Rogers. No wonder then that opinions about this musical (ranging from mind-blowing to downright asinine) have been almost as divided as the Security Council is over the war on Iraq.
For an outsider who has no baggage of expectations, Chicago demands less critical appraisal (quite similar to the West going gaga over Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Devdas without a clue about either its source or predecessors) and affords the luxury of enjoying an original American tale of greed, lust, debauchery and that peculiar hunger for 15 minutes of fame.
Set in Chicago at the time of the Prohibition era of the early 1920s, the story opens with wannabe stage singer Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) murdering her lover for betraying her and landing up on death row in the custody of the delectably wicked matron 'Mama' Morton (Queen Latifah). Sharing the prison space with Roxie is reigning stage queen Welma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who is awaiting her trial for the murder of her husband and sister.
Enter the suave and sexy criminal lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), with a reputation for defending attractive woman and rescuing them from the jaws of certain death by manufacturing sob stories, wooing the media and charming juries with his smooth (and mostly fabricated) arguments.
Snubbed by Kelly and encouraged by Mama Matron, Roxie hires the ruthlessly unscrupulous Flynn to represent her, while her pitiable husband Amos (John C Reilly) promises to scrounge for money to pay the high-profile lawyer's exorbitant fees.
Flynn does a professional job on Roxie making her an overnight tabloid starlet (and a Marilyn Monroe look-alike) who hogs more column space than archrival Kelly. As her popularity and confidence grows, so does Roxie's misplaced sense of self worth, prompting her to spin a web of lies to keep the cheap publicity going all the way up to the trial. Kelly meanwhile plots and schemes to upstage Roxie.
Although the story is set in an American city 80 years ago, its observations about the country's insatiable appetite for scandal and sensation and the generally dim attention span of the press and public is relevant even today. Barring poor Amos, who is foolishly steadfast in his loyalty to Roxie, all the other characters seem to revel in the decadent morality of the times.
And in keeping with the debauched characters, Marshall's sets, lighting and costumes too display a splash of garishness and sleaze.
Unlike Baz Lurhmann's Moulin Rouge (which grated on the nerves with its maudlin plot and over-reliance on visual flair) the song sequences in Chicago flow seamlessly with the story. While the Moulin Rouge soundtrack was a hash of sounds ranging from Diamonds are a girl's best friends to our own Chamma chamma, Chicago boasts of a remarkably powerful original soundtrack with all the actors chipping in. Particularly impressive is Zeta-Jones' And all that jazz, while Reilly's rendition of Mr Cellophane is truly heart-rending.
Ditto for the performances. Latifah's Matron act is delightful. Reilly's cuckold is the only character that doesn't change colour during the course of the film. Richard Gere doesn't look terribly comfortable in his dancing shoes. But as always, gets by with charm alone.
Zellweger may not match Zeta-Jones in the oomph department, who, by the way, looks like she was born under the skin of Velma Kelly. Nor does Renee's Roxie exude the raw sexuality you'd expect from a character hoping to seduce any audience. But she uses her famous pout to maximum advantage and keeps the film's momentum going.
Apart from minor glitches (a boom mike cutting through the frame in a production of this scale is unpardonable) and the absolute absence of outdoor shots, Chicago is a polished musical ably crafted and choreographed by Marshall. Don't wait for the Oscar verdict. Watch it anyway!