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Student Blog: Why “Chicago” Is the Best Movie Musical

It didn’t win the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2003 for nothing.

Student Blog: Why “Chicago” Is the Best Movie Musical

I love movies, and I love musicals; you'd think that the combination of these two art forms would generally yield high-quality, enjoyable results. However, if "Cats" and the controversial "Les Misérables" have taught us anything, it's that this is not always the case.

There are a few diamonds in the rough, though. "Mamma Mia," "Hairspray" and "The Sound of Music" stand out as wonderful adaptations that paid appropriate homage to the original shows, while being able to stand on their own.

But the best of the best is "Chicago." In fact, this is perhaps the only case where, in my opinion, the movie is better than the stage production, having seen both.

As more and more musicals are turned into movies nowadays, like "In the Heights," "West Side Story" and now "Dear Evan Hansen," it's important to discuss what made the best adaptations so successful, and what future directors can learn from their predecessors to achieve similar quality. And after all, what better template for a movie musical than the first one to win the Academy Award for Best Picture since 1968?

That's showbiz, kid.

Ideally, every movie musical would star Broadway actors who wouldn't necessarily have the same exposure to the media otherwise, rather than the same big Hollywood names. Still, "Chicago" was able to cast such stars as Renee Zellweger (Roxie Hart), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Velma Kelly), Queen Latifah (Matron "Mama" Morton) and Richard Gere (Billy Flynn), and they still brought plenty of talent, both vocally and in their acting. Upon re-watch (and re-watch, and re-watch and re-watch), I always notice more subtle acting choices made that bring new depth to the characters, from Billy lip-synching Roxie's rehearsed speech during the trial, to the way Roxie seems to both shy and preen under the flashlight shining on her face while her husband is being questioned by the authorities. There's even a little cameo from Chita Rivera, who was the original Velma Kelly on Broadway. The actors make their characters morally complex, and while none of them is playing someone worth true admiration, viewers can't help but sympathize with these narcissistic murderers and manipulators. And if that isn't a sign of great acting, I'm not sure what is.

Razzle dazzle

Perhaps the best aspect of Chicago is the way that the creators used cinematic tools to take the stage production to the next level, expanding on the story in ways that the stage production is unable to due to the inherent limitations in the art form.

There are visual elements that, while possible to convey on stage, are better suited to film, which can leave little easter eggs hidden in plain sight. For example, in the establishing shot for the scene in which Roxie and Billy are walking into the press conference, there is a painting of what seems to be an angel, her wings wide open as she plays a large trumpet. The word "Fame" is written above her head, and she is holding a banner that reads: "Their names and deeds." It is the perfect, subtle imagery to convey that Roxie seeks fame and fortune in order to sanctify herself in the eyes of the public, despite her heinous crime. Moreover, in the subsequent song, "We Both Reached for the Gun," not only are we treated to the visual gag of journalists seemingly controlled by strings, but we also see a shot of Billy actually pulling the strings from above, like an omnipotent god.

Each musical number exemplifies this choice of blending fantasy with reality, but "Cell Block Tango" is another perfect illustration of it. In the stage version, the six women sing while mostly sitting on stools facing the audience. It's very simple-or, at least, it is compared to the movie. In the movie, it cuts back and forth between the women telling their stories in dialogue and Roxie's imagination, in which the women are dancing with their victims in a reenactment of their murders. It is thrilling; the women ooze power and anger, and there is an army of murderesses backing up the main six in their song. The use of lighting and color holds a lot of symbolism, with mostly red to symbolize the blood and murder, while white represents the innocence of Ekaterina Chtchelkanova, the Hungarian woman who, we assume because of the language barrier, is wrongfully charged-and ultimately convicted and hanged.

Speaking of which, Ekaterina's death is achieved so artfully that it is guaranteed to give you goosebumps; it's the kind of scene that part of you wants to skip over because it'll only make you sad, but the gorgeous imagery and advancement of the show's themes make it such a satisfying emotional ache. The footage of the woman being led to her execution is spliced with fantasy scenes of her in a show performing a magical disappearing act. This scene is essentially the darker side of "We Both Reached for the Gun." They both illustrate that while there is a satirical side to the greed of the media and the corruption of the criminal justice system, there can also be deadly consequences.

While the stage version employs similar imagery for this scene, the strongly contrasting settings and eerily similar blocking of the combined reality and fantasy shots pack an emotional punch that is best portrayed on the big screen.

Artistic differences

Movie musicals have an important role in exposing more people to theater; as it is, the live theater experience is only available to those with the means to access it, and both movie adaptations and professional recordings are vital to keeping theater alive.

Still, we can and should hold movie makers to a higher standard when it comes to creating these adaptations. Not every fan is going to enjoy every artistic decision, but most people would probably agree that the point of a stage-to-screen adaptation should be to give the story the advantages of being turned into a film. What makes a movie musical successful is its ability to enhance the original production-not be an exact imitation, or worse, become pared down and glossy, manufactured to the point that it loses all authenticity and charm. What makes the "Chicago" movie so uniquely wonderful is that watching it is just as captivating as seeing the show live.

In conclusion, the show on everybody's lips might be "Dear Evan Hansen" or "West Side Story," but for me, all I care about is "Chicago," and all that jazz.


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From This Author Student Blogger: Alexandra Lang