One of the most successful films of 2003, 'Chicago' came out of left field to re-energize what many felt was a moribund genre, snagging critical accolades, a boatload of Oscars (including Best Picture), and a box office haul of over $100 million. While other modern musicals had tried to reinvent the form for younger, hipper audiences (including 1995's 'Evita' and 2001's 'Moulin Rouge'), none were able to hit it out of the park quite like 'Chicago,' which somehow managed to combine all the elements in just the right way to create an experience that was both faithful to the tenets of the form, yet fresh enough to resonate with today's audiences. It also clearly didn't hurt that the movie is adapted from the classic stage musical by Broaway legend Bob Fosse.
The story of 'Chicago' is certainly no 'Cats.' Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) are both fabulous murderers -- Velma killed her husband after she caught him in an affair with her sister, while Roxie offed her paramour when he walked out on her in a sleazy hotel. Now the two headline-grabbing rivals are in prison together, vying against one another for media attention and the affections of their shared lawyer, the slick opportunist Billy Flynn (Richard Gere). Add to the mix Roxie's hapless husband Amos (John C. Reilly) and bawdy prison matron (Queen Latifah), and you've got all of the ingredients for a neo-classic movie musical.
I think the reason 'Chicago' succeeded where other recent musicals failed is because it marries classic "razzle dazzle" -- memorable musical numbers, highly theatrical costumes and lighting, old school song and dance -- with a biting satire that bracingly assails our culture's inability to distinguish between the famous and the infamous. It's a topic even more timely than when Fosse first conceived it back in the '70s -- which makes him not only a master of song and dance, but positively prescient.
That 'Chicago' is a visually fantastic film is undeniable. Even the film's detractors praised the terrific production design, costumes and choreography, which seem to never take a wrong step. But perhaps the smartest decision made by the film's Oscar-winning director Rob Marshall was his choice to root 'Chicago' in its own unique reality. 'Chicago' is a musical that exists in "limbo," a theatrical term where the sets are obviously artificial and the backgrounds simply bleed into black. Yet because Marshall so deftly moves his camera through a dizzying set of swirls, swoops and dives, it never feels two dimensional. Instead, his film really lives and breathes as pure cinema, working completely on its own terms.
'Chicago' is also alive with great performances. Oscar-winner Zeta-Jones truly stuns as Velma. Quite frankly, though I've liked her in many previous films (particularly Steven Soderbergh's 'Traffic' and 'Ocean's 12'), I never would have predicted that she could deliver such a powerhouse, pitch-performance as she does here. Zellweger, too, sparkles, at last free of supporting-girl turns and the period restrictions of stiffer fare like 'Cold Mountain.' Even Richard Gere excels, giving his best performance in years. Fellow Oscar nominees Latifah and Reilly are also terrific, and who knew the latter could sing!? Combined with Marshall's sharp direction, great material and memorable songs, they turn 'Chicago' into the rare movie musical that actually gets it right.
'Chicago' is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen and 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 video on a BD-50 dual-layer disc, and despite some issues with the film's photography, it still delivers the razzle dazzle on Blu-ray.
Much of 'Chicago' was shot on very dark sets, with the props and sets "in limbo" on black stages. As such, the lighting is often high key, with the film processing "pushed" to bump up detail in low-contrast areas. This increases film grain considerably, leaving the transfer inconsistent -- one shot will look sharp and smooth, the next a softer and grainier. Still, detail is easily superior to previous standard-def releases. This is most noticeable in brightly lit shots, with tiny details on costumes clearly visible and a truly wonderful, three-dimensional sense of depth to backgrounds. Colors, too, exceed any previous video version. Even the deepest reds and purples sizzle, with no noise or bleeding. Fleshtones radiate a healthy glow, too, with all of the actors looking gorgeous. The source print (which appears to have been recently-remastered for a 2005 two-disc DVD release) is also in excellent shape, with rich blacks and no dropouts or speckles. Yes, 'Chicago' is a bit of a rollercoaster transfer in terms of grain and contrast, but when it shines, watch out -- you won't see a better-looking presentation on Blu-ray.
'Chicago' absolutely delivers in the audio department. Buena Vista has not held back, giving us an uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround track in a full 48kHz/24-bit encoding. It is without a doubt fantastic, and easily one of the best soundtracks I've ever heard on disc.
I don't say such things lightly. I own 'Evita,' 'Moulin Rouge,' 'All That Jazz,' 'West Side Story,' 'The Sound of Music' and 'Phantom of the Opera' on disc (so far only the last one has been released on high-def), and 'Chicago' beats them all, hands down. I cranked this puppy up to a healthy volume, and I really was blown away by its clarity and richness. From the pip squeal of Renee Zellweger's voice, to the tap-tap-tap of a shoe, to the sound of a chorus line of extras snapping their fingers -- the sense of detail and clarity on this track is fabulous. The vocals are amazingly clear and distinct. The music swells, the discrete effects explode in the rears like flashbulbs, yet nothing overpowers. I really loved it all: the smoothness and heft to the timbre of the mid-range, the absolute cleanliness of the high-end, and the incredibly tight low bass. Even if you hate the music in 'Chicago,' it would be hard not to be impressed by such a wholly immersive presentation. This one really made me want to run out and upgrade my speakers -- it's that flawless.
'Chicago' first hit DVD back in 2003, and the extras were slim and disappointing. Buena Vista re-issued the film in late 2005 as the "Razzle Dazzle Edition," and it was finally the special edition fans were craving. Just about all of those supplements have been ported over to Blu-ray, with only some of the fluffier extras nixed. It holds up as a very strong, comprehensive package.
Perhaps the best extras are the additional musical numbers. There is one single Deleted Scene, for the song "Class." This is presented as a fully completed and edited sequence, and while it is a good song, it does slow down the pace of the film. But even better are over a dozen performance clips in various states. There are six "Extended" versions of existing scenes -- these are presented as completed footage. Next are three more numbers, dubbed "From Start to Finish" -- "All I Care About," "Nowadays" and "And All That Jazz." The editing is nice -- we get interview bits with the performers as well as additional footage, with the image sometimes separated into moving boxes, containing either the final version, rehearsal footage or other on-set material. It is a very cool way to see how these scenes were constructed. Finally, there are five "Rehearsal" performances, which are rougher assemblages of voice recording sessions, choreography sessions and other behind-the-scenes bits. The only bummer here is all this material is presented in 480i standard-definition only.
The centerpiece video feature is the 27-minute "From Stage to Screen: The History of 'Chicago.'" This was my favorite piece, as it charts the history of the play from its success on and off-Broadway to the conception of the movie. The actual production and beyond is never discussed, but that's actually okay, because the history of 'Chicago' is such a cool story. Bob Fosse had a heart halfway through rehearsals for the original musical, and the result was that the production took a much darker turn. It also flopped after its debut in 1975, when it opened only days after 'A Chorus Line.' But obviously the rest is history, as the show emerged phoenix-like from the ashes, and after a torturous journey, came Rob Marshall's way after Baz ('Moulin Rouge!') Luhrmann turned it down. This is a must-watch for even casual viewers.
Next we have four additional featurettes. "An Intimate Look at Rob Marshall" (11 minutes) may sound like a porn title, but it's actually a pretty generic look at the Oscar-winning director's contributions to 'Chicago.' Renee Zellweger and John C. Reilly are the primary talkers, and apparently, Marshall is second only to Steven Spielberg as god's gift to cinema. Less substantial but more fun is "When Liza Minnelli Became Roxie Hart." Seems that during the play’s initial run, star Gwen Verdon swallowed a feather from one of the costumes and came down with a throat infection. After she had to be replaced, Minelli stepped into the role, fresh from her massive success in the film version of Fosse's 'Cabaret.' Audiences swooned and Minelli further cemented her legend status. Though there is no actual footage from her performances, we do get her singing "Nowadays" from the fabulously tacky '70s "Dinah Shore Show." Priceless!
Much shorter are two pieces on the film's excellent design aspects, "Academy Award-winning Production Designer John Myhre" and "Academy Award-winning Costume Designer Colleen Atwood." Each runs about six minutes. Both of their work is fabulous, and well deserving of dedicated featurettes. Surprisngly, though, writer screenwriter Bill Condon didn't get his own segment, which is odd, since he snagged an Oscar, too. Hmmph.
Wrapping it up is the audio commentary with director Rob Marshall and screenwriter Bill Condon that originally appeared on the initial, lame-duck DVD edition. Even with the wealth of other material, this track is surprisingly not redundant. It's a really strong commentary, with Marshall and Condon enthusiastic if good-naturedly weary of the arduous task of bringing 'Chicago' to the screen. From the eons it took to secure the cast, to compressing and restaging classic sequences for the film, to just getting Zellweger to sing (the actress was incredibly fearful of the role) is a joy to listen to. And best of all is how genuinely surprised and humble Marshall and Condon appear to be at the film's success. The fact that this track was recorded so soon after the film earned all of its acclaim, box office and awards actually makes it better -- it's still flush with the thrill of victory. A great listen.
Nearly four years after it took the world by storm, 'Chicago' holds up very well as a highly-entertaining musical, and as a showcase for great performances, choreography and musical numbers. The film's Blu-ray debut is a strong one, with a very nice transfer, a fine package of supplements, and easily one of the best -- if not the best -- soundtracks to yet hit the format. This is an easy recommend for fans of the film, musicals, or anyone who enjoys having a great time at the movies.