Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.
It had been 34 years since a big-budgest musical had won the Oscar for Best Picture and in that time only three musicals – Hello Dolly!, Beauty and the Beast and Moulin Rouge – had even been nominated. In the last third of the 20th century it became clear that the era of the live-action musical was over. What had once been a mainstay of the American cinematic landscape had now been almost exclusively relegated to animated features.
Chicago would, in a small way, help to pull the musical out of the doldrums. Based on the 1975 Broadway production by Bob Fosse, John Kander and Fred Ebb that proved to be ahead of its time (and loosely based on fact) it told the story of Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, two murderesses in the 1920s whose crimes become the fulcrum form shameless media celebrity.
At the time, audiences didn’t respond positively to the she’s cynical tone. Fosse tried to recoup its losses by turning Chicago into his follow-up to the film version of Cabaret, but died before he could bring it to the screen. The media-hungry age of the 1990s however would prove to be the perfect bit of musical cynicism as the show was revived and became the longest running revival in history.
The masterstroke of Rob Marshall’s 2002 film version is that it keeps Fosse’s choreography and replaces the episodic vaudeville style pieces by turning them into fantasies inside Roxy’s head so that the doldrums of her hum-drum reality are more easily juxtaposed with the fantasy going on inside her mind. It was also a brilliant idea to give the project to Marshall, who was a veteran of the stage.
His genius comes in the fantasies as he stages the musical numbers without having them feel stagey – he makes them remarkably cinematic. Take, for example, the great set piece “Cell Block Tango” – in which a group of female inmates sing about their dastardly crimes – it could have felt episodic but Marshall meshes it so well into the film that it feels organic. Same goes for the brilliant “Razzle Dazzle” in which Roxy’s lawyer Billy Flynn (played by a miscast Richard Gere) sings about manipulating the media by turning them into puppets.
Outside of any critical misgivings (and I do have them), I couldn’t deny that I found the movie a lot of fun. The music was infectious despite a story that wallows in the cynical muck. But, as with any musical, if the tunes are working you don’t mind so much.
What would follow the success of Chicago would be a brief revival of the movie musical. In the years that followed would come film adaptations of Rent, Into the Woods, Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables and Mamma Mia. It is hard to say that the movie musical has returned in full form because we still haven’t reached the age of original musicals, but there is still hope, and apparently still and audiences hungry to see them.