A romanticized vision of 1920s jazz culture.
“Jay, how can this be romanticized?” you ask, knowing the basic premise of the film. The film is hardly a realistic portrayal of any of the events within. Instead, the movie is a flashy and zazzy experience meant to overtake the senses.
Chicago won best picture in 2003. Something that I have never understood. That is not to say the film is bad, but I don’t think it transcends to best picture quality. Before I dive into the narrative, it might be prudent to discuss genre. Musicals captivate a lot of folk. The spectacle of these films seems to overpower most audiences, and they get sucked in to the magic. Anyone who has seen a strong stage production of any musical has probably experienced this phenomenon. The power of music and visual splendor is often hard to ignore.
However, this is where the film adaptations of musicals tend to suffer. Chicago features great costumes, sets, acting, choreography, and music, but the camera becomes intrusive. When you are sitting in a theatre, you are overwhelmed by everything on the stage. Your eye does not know where to focus, and it is up to the actors (not the camera) to direct your attention. In Chicago, the cuts of the camera constantly reminded me that I was watching a film, thus breaking the spell. Dozens and dozens of cuts, shaky camera, twirling camera, and other tricks confused the power of the music at numerous points. Sadly, the musical moments are more distracting than they are enchanting.
The sordid story of sex, star-worship, vapid press, and murder makes for an entertaining film. None of the characters are particularly likable, but the actors play their parts well. Watching criminals play the system to become beloved-criminals in the age of jazz is amusing, and there are plenty of small turns and twists to keep the audience entertained.
Oddly, the worship of people who probably don’t deserve it seems more timely today than it was in 2002. Chicago is aging well due to these elements. Queen Latifah’s performance as corrupt prison warden Mama is one of her best. She is able to fully bring the role to life (surpassing even the stage performance I have seen). Latifah is a genuine and powerful actress who can move from spectacle to serious in a blink.
I know a lot of folks weren’t crazy about the film, or thought it should have been better than it was. Perhaps this is true. Perhaps this is a reflection giving an entertaining but somewhat shallow film best picture. Is Chicago worth watching? Certainly (especially if you’re a fan of musicals). Will it change your life? Nope. An entertaining film that raises interesting points without exploring them. 7/10