Chicago Is a Helluva Movie Musical

Chicago | Denzel Washington | Sopranos

Chicago Is a Helluva Movie Musical

No one liked Martin Scorsese's New York, New York when it opened in 1977. It caused a furor because a piece from it was excised for length, then the cut portion became a cult item and had to be re-added. Critics applauded it, audiences shunned it. Never mind that it spawned several hit songs including the title number. Or that it reunited composers Kander and Ebb with Liza Minnelli just five years after their success with Cabaret. People called it a failed experiment.

Now Kander and Ebb are back with Chicago and the funny part, which will not be lost on anyone, especially Martin Scorsese, is that director Rob Marshall will have an Oscar nomination for best picture just by following Scorsese's blueprint. This just goes to show that not only is Marshall gifted, but Scorsese is always ahead of his time.

Chicago, which was shown a couple of times a few weeks ago to long lead press, is a surprise. There wasn't a single reason to think it would work out. For some time, Herbert Ross was going to direct it with Goldie Hawn and Madonna in the lead roles. Rosie O'Donnell was supposed to be in it too. And the character of Billy Flynn? At that point, you knew John Travolta would be sticking his head into it.

Then along comes Rob Marshall, who remade Annie from its original, unwatchable Carol Burnett film into a thing of beauty for ABC-TV. And with Ross gone to the soap opera in the sky, Marshall was able to cast more interesting names. But still ... Richard Gere? Catherine Zeta-Jones? Renee Zellweger? Anyone who'd seen the show on Broadway would have demanded that, at the very least, Bebe Neuwirth be allowed to recreate her role. It's not like she can't act or something. After all, she has Cheers, Frasier, lots of Broadway and this summer's Tadpole under her belt.

So when Zeta-Jones opens the film with "All that Jazz" and you realize that she's not only singing but also that she's good, you feel the little hairs on the backs of necks starting to buzz with interest. Very quickly, with an interesting screenplay that cuts quickly and juxtaposes all over the place, Marshall has you in his hand. Somehow, he manages to convey the thrill of live theatre with the excitement of seeing Richard Gere not destroy his career (indeed, he seems to be saving it) by tap dancing.

The three main actors are all very good, but it's Zellweger who takes over and, by mid-point, it's her movie. It's too easy to say she had us at hello, but really, was there any reason to think she could pull this off? (No, not particularly.)

And then the supporting cast kicks in, Queen Latifah, who's quite good, and John C. Reilly, whose rendition of "Mr. Cellophane," the cuckold's lament, will land him the best supporting actor award and beat Paul Newman with a decided thud. (Sorry, Paul, we still love ya.)

Chicago will benefit from last year's Moulin Rouge campaign, certainly. Before that, no one wanted to hear about film musicals again. But Chicago is different. This is a musical straight guys will like and feel comfortable with. Moulin Rouge was not. There are echoes of today's headlines, and there's no kitschy mugging for the camera. There are no inside jokes transmitted to those who know something we don't. Chicago is just general enough to appeal to the mainstream and just hip enough to appeal to critics.

It's a Miramax film, the very same studio which will release the D.A. Pennebaker-directed documentary that I co-produced, called Only the Strong Survive next February. I'd like to add this rejoinder, lest anyone think there's a conflict of interest. OTSS, as we call it, is in a much different league than Chicago, or any other Miramax movie. Suffice to say, it's on the same plane, budgetarily, as another Miramax documentary: Jerry Seinfeld's dreadful Comedian. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Miramax is owned by Disney, which is releasing Spike Lee's 25th Hour, just in case you were interested. Spike's made several movies for 20th Century Fox, however, which is the same studio that is owned by News Corp., which also owns this web site.

Denzel and Spike's College Reunion

Denzel Washington's eldest son has had a lot of Training Days since he arrived at Morehouse College in August. John David Washington is such a good athlete that he's already a starting running back for the college's Fighting Tigers football team. On Saturday, he was part of a 19-16 win over Lane College of Jackson, Tennessee. Lucky, too, for him since his folks were there to help celebrate homecoming weekend. Also on hand was Denzel's friend and sometime director Spike Lee, another Morehouse graduate (as is Denzel) and supporter. Come Oscar time, both men will be vying for awards — Spike for his 25th Hour, and Denzel for Antwone Fisher. But over the weekend, it was John David who was the star. That's better than any Oscar, now isn't it?

Sopranos for Chi-lites

In case you're too young to know, the big song in last night's Sopranos episode was "Oh Girl," by the Chi-Lites. As Tony commented, it was on Brunswick Records. That was an "A" episode last night, if only for that. But also having Peter Riegert and Vondie Curtis-Hall in the mix is brilliant, thanks to Sheila Jaffe and Georgeanne Walken's casting. Meanwhile, am I worried that Dr. Melfi's therapy isn't working on Tony? You betcha. And this was the first time I noticed how much The Sopranos is becoming like Dallas, with recurring secondary and tertiary characters, a Greek chorus, and long payoffs for short stories. David Chase would do well to take a page out of the late Leonard Katzman's book.