Few films can raise the hairs on the back of your neck, provoke applause, or send you sailing home on air, but 'Chicago' can and does. Not once, not twice, but every single time one sees this dazzling musical. Impeccably envisioned by director Rob Marshall, who had never before helmed a feature film, and performed with passion, spunk, and gusto by an unlikely cast that includes Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, Queen Latifah, and John C. Reilly, 'Chicago' is chock full of style, substance, glamour, grit, and some of the most exhilarating musical numbers in movie history.
Just about perfect is the only way to describe this dark, cynical tale of murder, corruption, and the shallow culture of celebrity. Marshall's brilliant concept of taking the original Broadway show's vaudeville numbers and filming them as the fantasies of desperate showbiz wannabe Roxie Hart (Zellweger) makes this once impossible-to-film musical an instant classic of modern cinema. It also reinvents and reenergizes the musical genre by giving jaded audiences a plausible entrée into the songs and dances, and proving viewers would respond (and rejoice!) if the material was presented in a manner they could accept and digest. Screenwriter Bill Condon deserves equal credit for opening up the show, enhancing its already potent plot, and supplying seamless transitions in and out of the numbers. As a result, the score not only fuels the narrative, but also shapes and molds characters and hammers home various vital themes — all while providing knock-your-socks-off entertainment.
And because those themes — celebrity worship, the media's fickle nature, and ruthless opportunism — are timeless, we can relate to 'Chicago' on many levels, and view it as a contemporary piece despite its 1920s period setting. Roxie is a brainless ditz who, in a moment of rage, bumps off her sleazy lover (Dominic West) and goes to prison. But her tenacious, all-consuming ambition allows her to quickly embrace the corrupt system that surrounds her, and almost overnight become a savvy manipulator who proudly brandishes her notoriety and — like her slick lawyer, Billy Flynn (Gere) — controls those around her like a master puppeteer. Roxie meets her match, however, in fellow murderess Velma Kelly (Zeta-Jones), who won't relinquish her title of Queen Bee of Cook County Jail and darling of the Windy City tabloids without a tooth-and-nail fight.
Many have criticized Marshall for using quick cuts and interpolating bits of drama into the musical numbers. The bold style, they say, chops up the songs, destroys the integrity of the performances, and transforms a pedigreed Broadway hit into an MTV musical. Well, nothing could be further from the truth. Marshall masterfully ramps up excitement by editing within the parameters of each song's rhythm and mood. Sure, he may cater a bit to our ADD society, but he keeps the film moving, the pulse pounding, and never cheats a single number. From the bandleader's kickoff of "five, six, seven, eight" (which segues into the mesmerizing opening routine, 'And All That Jazz'), 'Chicago' sprints out of the gate, and the pacing never lags for a moment. Even slow ballads like 'Funny Honey' and 'Mister Cellophane' (exquisitely performed by Reilly as Roxie's naïve, doltish husband) are vital and visually interesting. Marshall's love for 'Chicago' drips from the film's every frame, and it's impossible not to feel and be moved by it.
The incisive story of 'Chicago' supplies necessary substance, but without the dynamite John Kander-Fred Ebb score, the film would lack the panache that defines it. Each song possesses both a catchy melody and clever lyric, but 'Cell Block Tango' is a tour de force, as five sexy convicts (Velma included) explain why they killed their respective mates. Bold and brassy, it grabs us by the throat and rivets our attention, reminding us of the sheer visceral power of a great musical number. 'Roxie,' performed on a reflective floor and against a wall of mirrors, oozes old-time movie glamour, while the flashy Charleston of 'Hot Honey Rag' (with machine guns as props, no less!) makes for an explosive, unforgettable finale.
Zellweger had no formal dance or vocal training before she joined the 'Chicago' cast, but her fierce dedication to the part and fearless execution of the demanding routines erase any indication she's a novice. Like a luxurious sable coat, she wraps Roxie around her, embracing all the character's faults and strengths, and displaying them in number after number. We love her, we hate her, we admire her, we pity her, yet through it all we root for Roxie...and for Zellweger. The picture's success hinges on her portrayal, and she never disappoints.
If Zellweger is a surprise, however, Zeta-Jones is a revelation. No one can eclipse Chita Rivera (who originated Velma on stage and enjoys a wonderful cameo in the film), but Zeta-Jones comes close, attacking her role with an energy and ferocity that's a joy to behold. Like a panther, she deliciously slinks through 'And All That Jazz,' flashing her big black eyes, exuding sexual attitude, and belting out the song with unbridled intensity. Who knew she possessed such a strong, full voice, or could so precisely realize Marshall's complex choreography? Zeta-Jones is a mesmerizing presence in 'Chicago' — like a leadoff hitter, she sets the tone, and the rest of the lineup beautifully backs her up.
That includes Gere, who seems to relish his singing and dancing chores while bringing immeasurable flash and charm to ringmaster Flynn; Queen Latifah, who adds plenty of spice and sass as prison matron Mama Morton (and nails the hot vaudeville number, 'When You're Good to Mama'); the amazingly versatile Reilly (again, who knew?); the always adorable Christine Baranski as newspaper sob sister Mary Sunshine; and Lucy Liu as high society murderess Kitty Baxter.
I could go on, of course (yes, I really could), but you get the point. In every respect, 'Chicago' is a special motion picture, an exhilarating tonic that lifts the film musical to a new artistic level, and proves there's still an enormous amount of life left in the genre. If you're not a musicals fan, 'Chicago' may not transform you into one, but at the very least it should instill and foster an appreciation for an art form that not only entertains, but can also inspire and deepen the impact of a story or theme...as well as lift those hairs on the back of your neck.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Chicago: Diamond Edition' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case inside a glossy sleeve with raised lettering. A BD-50 dual-layer disc, standard-def DVD, and leaflet containing a code to access the Digital HD Ultraviolet copy reside inside. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is Dolby TrueHD 7.1. Once inserted into the player, the full-motion menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
I must admit I was never very happy with the video transfer on the previous 'Chicago' Blu-ray edition. It wasn't awful by any means, but it always seemed just a tad off with regard to clarity and detail levels. So when I learned the image was getting a makeover, I was quite excited at the prospect of seeing 'Chicago' in a new light. The packaging touts "newly remastered video by Dolby," which provides "enhanced details and contrast for a visually stunning presentation not even seen during [the movie's] theatrical debut." That's quite a statement, but just like Sony's "Mastered in 4k" line of Blu-rays, you won't be able to see all the visual enhancements unless you have the proper display (which, from what I understand, is currently still in development). So while someday I might be able to enjoy this Blu-ray to its fullest, right now it isn't quite the bowl-me-over, utterly immersive transfer for which I was hoping (okay, praying). Yet even on my plain old LED TV, this Diamond Edition is a significant step up from its predecessor, albeit in subtle ways.
'Chicago' has always been a challenging film, with its severe color changes, dark scenes, stark contrast, and razzle dazzle look. Yet this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer handles such issues exceedingly well, providing us with a wonderfully textured image that preserves the original grain structure, nicely highlights details, and is definitely clearer and crisper than any previous video edition. A greater sense of depth distinguishes this rendering, which illuminates background elements like never before. For instance, during the 'Roxie' number when Zellweger retreats to the far recesses of the frame against the jet black backdrop, she's perfectly delineated, whereas before she was a blur of glistening sequins. The same is true during the 'Hot Honey Rag' finale, with Zellweger and Zeta-Jones dancing against a wall of blazing light bulbs. The detail is much sharper here, without any of the previous bleed and glare. And then there's the trumpet player bathed in blue light in the far corner of the screen in the 'Funny Honey' number. He's clearer and sharper than ever before. Reflections are also more finely etched and vibrancy has been kicked up a notch, too. Yes, the picture runs a little hot at times, but incredibly lush black levels balance some of the harsh brightness.
Marshall manipulates color like a master, washing out the "reality" scenes with a grayish tint to emphasize the story's grit and moral grime, then allowing the fantasy musical sequences to explode with vibrant hues. Reds are bright and beautifully saturated, whether in the backdrop of the 'Cell Block Tango' number or the blazing neon "Roxie" sign, which appears much clearer here than it ever has previously. Fleshtones are spot-on and close-ups are magnificent, showcasing every pore and crease on the actors' faces. No crush, noise, or banding afflicts the image; no edge enhancement or DNR seems to have been applied; and not a single nick, scratch, or mark dots the pristine print. I did notice a hint of jitter on a couple of occasions, but the incidents were so minor, they didn't in any way inhibit my enjoyment of this excellent transfer.
Are the improvements significant enough to merit an upgrade? Absolutely. As I watched this remastered version of 'Chicago,' I was continually struck by the enhanced clarity of several scenes, and that alone was enough to gain my attention and win my favor. Without a doubt, 'Chicago' has never looked better, and as display technology improves, so should this disc.
The best thing about the previous Blu-ray edition of 'Chicago' was its reference quality 5.1 PCM Uncompressed audio transfer, so was an upgrade - or update - really necessary? Probably not, but I must say this brand new 7.1 Dolby TrueHD mix once again knocks the ball out of the park and just might edge out its predecessor by a nose. (I realize I just mixed my sports metaphors, but oh well...) Robust and powerful, yet still marvelously nuanced, this highly active, impeccably modulated track brings 'Chicago' to brilliant life, immersing us in all of the film's varied settings and creating a seamless aural atmosphere.
There's more surround activity here than in most action movies, with any and all opportunities for sonic bleed completely maximized. Whether it's rear channel ambient effects, directional wipes and accents, or pronounced stereo separation up front, each sound is crisp and distinct, and possesses a resonance that increases its impact. From the slamming of cell block doors and omnipresent popping of flashbulbs to dripping faucets, drumming fingernails, and high heels crunching against the pavement, this track assaults us from every angle and enhances our connection to the on-screen action. Dynamic range is seemingly limitless, with both bright highs and weighty lows achieving a perfect balance of presence, depth, and tone. Distortion is never an issue, and while the bass rumbles are pronounced, they never overwhelm the track.
The musical numbers, of course, shine. The orchestrations envelop with ease, pouring out of all the speakers with fantastic fidelity and a purity of tone that exhilarates the senses. Vocals are always nicely prioritized, allowing us to savor inflections and bits of attitude, while the various ambient effects sprinkled throughout the songs come through cleanly as well. Dialogue is equally strong; all the flippant remarks and sassy comebacks are easy to comprehend, and no pops, crackles, or static disrupt the experience.
While this upgraded transfer isn't enough of an improvement over the old track to warrant a double dip on its own, it certainly is a nice bonus that complements the enhanced picture quality well. So crank this jazz baby up...it can handle the heat!
Here's where things fall off the rails just a bit. Instead of porting over all the extras from the previous Blu-ray edition of 'Chicago,' Lionsgate has only copied a couple of choice offerings. Thankfully, the studio chose to keep the best supplements on that 2007 disc, but fans of the film should be aware that such featurettes as 'An Intimate Look at Director Rob Marshall' and 'When Liza Minnelli Became Roxie Hart,' profiles of both production designer John Myhre and costume designer Colleen Atwood, and most disappointing of all, a 28-minute behind-the-scenes television special are not included on this Diamond Edition. Maybe Lionsgate felt the all-new and exhaustively comprehensive documentary (reviewed in the Blu-ray exclusives section below) sufficiently covers all those bases, or maybe there simply wasn't enough disc space to include all that material. Whatever the reasoning behind the decision, it's a shame to lose those supplements, and diehard fans may want to hold onto their old disc for future access.
Most of the supplements on this Diamond Edition reside on the Blu-ray disc, but a couple only can be accessed on the accompanying DVD.
Give me this razzle-dazzle any day of the week. Like a potent cocktail, 'Chicago' intoxicates the senses with its effervescent blend of searing story and exhilarating song and dance. Distinguished by an inventive and riveting presentation and packed with breathtaking numbers, kinetic energy, and bite and cynicism galore, Rob Marshall's reimagining of the movie musical still KOs its audience more than a decade after its theatrical release. This Diamond Edition from Lionsgate brings this modern classic to life like never before, thanks to spectacular remastered video with enhanced clarity and vivacity, a 7.1 lossless audio track that's every bit as nuanced as it is bold, and a brand-new retrospective documentary that explores every nook and cranny of the production. You may already own 'Chicago,' but you don't own it like this, and for those who revere this exceptional movie and Best Picture winner, an upgrade is essential.