Bright Lights Film Journal

Chicago: Hollywood Does Bollywood

No one can steal like America can steal

Wish you could look like Leo, dance like Fred, and sing like Frank? Well, of course you do, but you can’t, and no one can, which is one reason why successful musicals are rarer than hen’s teeth these days.1)

Over in India, they’ve got it all figured out. So what if your gorgeous leading man is a reedy baritone who misses middle C four out of five times? Just dub in a glorious heldentenor and watch the babes go wild! And if he can’t dance either, just bring in another ringer. What are movies about but suspension of disbelief?

Back in the U.S.A., Hollywood is starting to catch on to Bollywood’s tricks, using a dollop of digital deceit to smooth over the rough edges. If it works for dinosaurs, it should work for dancers, right?

After a false start last year with Moulin Rouge,2 the studio suits have gotten their act together with Chicago, which is looking like a hit.3 And if you’re in the mood for two hours of one-dimensional cynicism delivered with a gold lamé sledgehammer, this just might fill the bill.

Catherine Zeta-Jones stars as double-murderess Velma Jones, the ball-busting mother of butch. Her opening number, “All That Jazz,” is an exercise in lib-curling excess that makes Elvis look like Julius La Rosa.4 Renée Zellweger takes the role of single-murderess Roxie Hart, and it’s fun for a while to see a cunning brain hiding behind her cute little puppy-dog face, but the bit quickly gets old. Richard Gere plays super-shyster Billy Flynn, who ultimately springs both babes.

The singing, and dancing, of all the stars is digitally “enhanced”5 (an outright ringer is used for Gere’s tap dance number), and one suspects that digitally enhanced “acting” isn’t far down the road. Well, what were you expecting from Hollywood, reality?

Afterwords

Chicago started out as a play written in 1926 by Chicago reporter Maurine Watkins, describing how human interest stories written by reporters like herself enabled two murderous but colorful women to win acquittal for their crimes.6 It was made “straight” as a silent film in 1927 and then remade in 1942 in a softened version, Roxie Hart, starring Ginger Rogers, turning Roxie into a showbiz wannabe so hungry for publicity that she lets herself be charged for a murder she didn’t commit.

By the time Bob Fosse, John Kander, and Fred Ebb got around to making Chicago into a musical in the seventies, they went back to the original. Fosse, after all, more or less assumed that all women – all women worth fucking, anyway – are murderers, or at least want to cut your dick off. And after the enormous (and justified) success of their previous collaboration, Cabaret,7 the threesome couldn’t resist turning the corn-fed, booze-and-broads corruption of Watkins’ Chicago8 into the campy decadence of the Kit-Kat Club.9 But by now, ending a number with a dank, dark, ambisexual, omnisexual group grope is so passé it’s turning up in Britney Spears’ videos.10 A little fresh air would be a pleasure!

  1. Consider the plight of poor Madonna, who can sing and dance (pretty much) and is quite reasonably gorgeous, but can’t act worth a damn, and thus is destined to hatch one celluloid turkey after another, until she gets tired of trying. We shouldn’t be too hard on the Material One. Cross-overs defeat the best of us. Sharon Stone once remarked of her own attempts at singing, “I felt so out of place! Kinda like Madonna at the Academy Awards.” (Oh Sharon, you cunt. You big, beautiful cunt. []
  2. I walked out on Moulin Rouge after twenty minutes. To pay eight bucks to be insulted is, well, insulting. []
  3. “Sophisticated, brash, sardonic, completely joyful in its execution,” raves Stephanie Z in Salon. Stephanie, honey! Listen to the voice of experience! Sloe gin and Ecstasy don’t mix! []
  4. Used to be big. []
  5. I’m told that Zeta-Jones once was a tap-dancing champ. She’s obviously in great shape, but dances like a weight-lifter, hitting the floor so hard you expect her to crash through it. One has to wonder how long poor Michael Douglas is going to last. []
  6. Watkins only wrote one other play in her lifetime, but did work as a scriptwriter in Hollywood for about twenty years. She did not like people to know that Chicago was a largely accurate portrait of Chicago journalism and her role in it. She never allowed the play to be revived on the stage, and only her death allowed the musical version to go forward. []
  7. Not to sound too much like Louie B. Mayer, but Cabaret has approximately one million times as much heart as Chicago. []
  8. In 1926, Chicago was America’s sin city par excellence. Naming a play “Chicago” back then was like naming a play “Vegas” today (or maybe “Brentwood”). []
  9. Want some real Weimar? Check out my review of Mahagonny elsewhere in Bright Lights. []
  10. Not yet a woman, already a has-been? Don’t count Britney out! I think the kid has legs! []