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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published February 6th 2003:

A few years ago I took me dear old dad to the pictures for his birthday present. We went to see Gladiator, watched it, enjoyed it, but in the end decided it was a good and efficient film rather than a really great one. The staggering success of the film both at the box office and with the critics was thus a bit of a surprise to us both. In the end I put it down to the fact that this was a film from a genre Hollywood hadn’t touched for nearly forty years, but a genre people still had a great fondness and nostalgia for – and it was a combination of novelty and nostalgia that made it such a hit.

Well, another year, another family celebration and off we went to see Rob Marshall’s Chicago – which also looks destined to do very well come Oscar night, and also rake in a tidy sum. I had my suspicions that this film was riding on a wave of affection for an older style of film-making in just the same way Gladiator did – but then again I’m really not a great fan of musicals.

Chicago is set in 1920s Chicago (do you see what they’ve done there? Clever, isn’t it?). Wannabe star Roxie Hart (the eternally hamster-cheeked Renee Zellweger) is outraged to learn that the man she’s using to sleep her way to the top is in fact only interested in her bottom and has no intention of helping her succeed. So she murders him. She ends up on the same prison wing as bona fide star Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta Jones), who’s in the slammer for murdering her sister and her husband. In order to secure her release Roxie retains the services of brilliant but unscrupulous lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), who impresses upon her the importance of keeping the media on her side…

So, an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza set in a women’s prison. The omens were not good. But put all thoughts of Prisoner Cell Block H: The Musical from your mind as Chicago is actually a fantastic night out. Obviously a film like this lives or dies on the strength of the musical numbers and one of the most interesting things about Chicago is its approach to this: rather than employing the standard, faintly ridiculous technique of having characters simply burst into song as they go about their daily lives, the film presents Roxie as a delusional fantasist who sees everything in terms of a musical number of some kind – so most of the songs happen in her head. It’s an interesting conceit and to begin with I thought it was a rather craven one, the film-makers wanting to have all the pizazz and spectacle of a proper musical but without risking employing all the much-derided conventions of one. But it works, and what’s more it allows the routines and choreography from the stage show to be employed pretty much unchanged in many places.

Now I don’t know about you but I didn’t have Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta Jones and Richard Gere pegged as singing and dancing types, but they all acquit themselves pretty well. And when he’s not razzle-dazzling Gere delivers a fantastic performance as the shyster who fights his cases more in the gossip columns than the courthouse. The supporting cast is excellent – Queen Latifah as the formidable warden delivers a showstopper, Lucy Liu has a tiny, non-singing cameo, and John C Reilly – currently making a bid for the title of hardest-working-man-in-cinema – does his good-hearted schmo turn again (but reveals he can sing a bit too).

I find it sickly amusing that the British ‘quality tabloids’ (yup, that’s an oxymoron)¬†are unstinting in their criticism of certain films on moral grounds but have praised Chicago to the skies – odd, seeing that the happy ending consists of enormous success for a couple of amoral, unrepentant murderers. I suppose it’s another demonstration of the power of cheap music. Slight ethical queasiness aside, I did enjoy this film far more than I expected to, and much to my surprise it’s a film with things to say for itself. Its cynical commentary on media manipulation and the nature of celebrity are very much relevent to 2003. A terrific piece of smart, sharp, glitzy entertainment. My kinda town? Chicago is.

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