Study Guide

Chicago

Chicago Introduction


Release Year: 2002

Genre: Comedy, Crime, Musical

Director: Rob Marshall

Writers: Bill Condon; Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb (musical); Maurine Dallas Watkins (play)

Stars: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere, Renée Zellweger


We could write this entire intro using lyrics from the catchy songs of the musical Chicago:

Why don't we paint the town? In case you shake apart and want a brand new start. We know a whoopee spot. The system works. We love them all and all of them love us. It was a murder but not a crime. We betcha you would have done the same!

Okay, it wouldn't make the most sense, but you'd get the gist of both the plot and spirit of this sordid, sexy, salacious showbiz spectacular:

  • Nightlife. 
  • Dancing that makes Dirty Dancing look like Sterile Dancing
  • Second chances. 
  • Booze galore. 
  • And—oh yeah—murder most foul. 

Chicago, which jumped from Broadway to jazz up Hollywood at the end of 2002, was the first movie musical to win a Best Picture Academy Award since 1968 (that would be Oliver!). It also earned a Best Supporting Actress trophy for Catherine Zeta-Jones who shimmied and shook as Velma Kelly, a jazz singer in jail for double murder. 

Murder has never looked this glamorous.

Joining Velma in jail is Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger), a wannabe jazz babe who hopes to turn her infamy into plain famy—if that's a word (it isn't)—using the scandal surrounding her own crime to catapult herself to stardom. 

Chicago is a critique of the public's hunger for true crime and a commentary on how criminals are often rewarded instead of punished. Yeah, these ladies know how to get away with murder.

Directing these dangerous dames is Rob Marshall. After earning his musical chops on Chicago, he went on to direct Nine (2009) and Into the Woods (2014). But those movies came after the big musical wave crested in the mid-2000s. Chicago targeted fans of Broadway musicals and the audiences that flocked to Moulin Rouge! the year before.

  

The early 2000s marked an encore for the movie musical, a genre that hadn't been popular in years. Due to Chicago's popularity, studios greenlit a big-screen adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera (2004), Dreamgirls (2006), and High School Musical (2006). Chicago had a fairly modest production budget of $45 million and its $300 million worldwide gross had Miramax singing.

So grab your G&T (that's ginger ale and Tostitos for any of you Shmoopers under 21), and get ready to transport yourself back to the clubs of 1920s Chicago. It's a world with a seedy underbelly so hefty that it's more like a seedy beer gut. It's got red-hot sex appeal,  ice-cold killers, thirsty journalists, thirstier lawyers, and thirstiest would-be singers. 

And it really does have all that jazz.

What is Chicago About and Why Should I Care?

Serial killers like Charles Manson almost get married in jail. (And yet some normal people remain single…) Terrorist bombers get their picture on the cover of Rolling Stone. And although creepy Robert Durst from The Jinx isn't going to be singing at a nightclub any time soon (at least we hope not), there's no denying that hardly anyone knew who the man was before the hit HBO documentary about the serial murder.

As long as there are murders and famous people (and famous murderers), Chicago is going to be relevant. While life is valued a smidge more today than it was in the roaring, lawless 1920s, we still live in a world where murderers become famous and where media live by the adage that "if it bleeds, it leads."

But don't worry—Chicago ain't a downer. In fact, it has all the "Razzle Dazzle" of lawyer Billy Flynn, tricking you into singing along and practicing your jazz hands instead of really thinking about the dark deeds done dirt cheap that pepper this script. The smoke and mirrors is both super-fun (dance numbers and sexy flapper attire never miss) and totally part of the razor-sharp satire of this madcap musical.

Because Chicago does exactly the same thing that Chicago lampoons: portrays murder in a scandalous and titillating manner. With all those saxophone-heavy musical encores, it's entirely possible to forget that you're watching a movie about fame-crazed women shooting, stabbing, and poisoning whoever stands in their path to the limelight.

That's the point of this movie: it isn't a court of law that really matters. Sometimes, it's the court of public opinion. And with enough glitzy show tunes and saucy mini-skirts, Chicago proves that even cold-blooded murder can look, well, sexy… as long as you're in the audience.

So the next time a true crime crosses your TV screen or your podcast playlist, make sure to see through the razzle-dazzle and see if it's really worth your attention.

Trivia

"Sophie Tucker will spit I know, to see her name get billed below… Roxie Hart." That's what the censored subtitles say about this famous song lyric. So who is Sophie Tucker? She was a popular Vaudevillian in Chicago, famous for the song "Some of These Days," which Roxie's song "Nowadays" is reminiscent of.
(Source)

Mama might call Velma "common" but she's just as classy—or unclassy—as Velma is. The movie's most vulgar song was cut from the final edit. It's ironically called "Class" and features some lyrics that push the boundaries of PG-13. You can't spell "Class" without… well, you get the point. Needless to say: language warning, kiddos.
(Source)

Renée Zellweger was too nervous to perform live, so Queen Latifah filled in for Roxie when singing "I Move On" at the Academy Awards (where this song was nominated for Best Song). Bravo to Catherine Zeta-Jones for singing even though her pregnant belly was on the verge of bursting, and kudos to John Travolta for (almost) getting the ladies' names right in his introduction.
(Source)

Chicago Resources

Websites

From Jazz Age to Internet Age
What has over half a million Facebook fans, six Academy Awards, and an 86% Rotten Tomato score? Chicago of course.

Articles and Interviews

First Curtain Call
Chicago wasn't Renée Zellweger's first movie, but here she talks about it being her first on-screen singing and dancing role.

Queen's Reign
Queen Latifah discusses the most important things in Chicago—the music and her cleavage.

Chita Girls
Catherine Zeta-Jones takes over for Chita Rivera, who played Velma on Broadway but has a cameo in the movie.

The Road to Chicago
Did Catherine Zeta-Jones have to kill anyone to get famous? You'll have to read this interview to find out.

Stage Coach
Renée Zellweger talks about voice coaching and other skills she had to learn to bring heart to Roxie.

Greasy Lawyer
Richard Gere did Grease in the '70s, which provided a little practice for Chicago.

Video

Behind-the-Scenes Visions
These interviews either took place on the set, or Catherine Zeta-Jones always goes out dressed as Velma Kelly.

That Ship Has Sailed
Paul Schafer's rendition of the "Cell Block Tango" isn't that catchy, but Catherine Zeta-Jones is always radiant, even when talking about being named after a boat.

In the Studio
Renée should sing her way through this interview about singing on film, but she doesn't.

Not the Grand Duchess of Russia
We're not sure who singer Anastacia is, but she's on the soundtrack and was at the premiere.

And All That Bindi
Bindi Irwin and Alexa PenaVega put out their best jazz hands for a rendition of Chicago's greatest hits on Dancing with the Stars.

Audio

Razzle with a Little Less Dazzle
If for some reason you don't want to see Catherine Zeta-Jones turn the fierce to 11, you can listen to the soundtrack without visuals on Spotify.

Chicago Throwback
If you're tired of John, Renée, and Catherine, take a listen to the Original Broadway Cast recording.

Images

Bebe? How About A+ A+?
Bebe Neuwirth tore up the stage as Velma in the successful revival of Chicago. How does Catherine compare?

All That Zeta-Jones
Almost every U.S. poster for Chicago is identical. This international poster puts Zeta-Jones front and center.