Roxie's ordinary world is as dull as dirty dishwater. She has a lame husband, and she's having an affair with a man because she hopes that he can catapult her to stardom. Her Chicago isn't a city of glitz and glamour. It's a tiny apartment where the L-Train passes at odd hours and keeps her awake at night.
Roxie watches singer and dancer Velma Kelly and wants to be her. But Roxie is more Scooby-Doo than Velma, so she needs to take dramatic action to be famous. When she has the opportunity to shoot her lover, Fred Casely, and get her name in the papers, it's a shot Roxie knows she has to take. And she doesn't miss.
Prison isn't all it's cracked up to be. Who knows what Roxie expected, but prison is full of hard work, crazy ladies, cold nights, and worst: unflattering jumpsuits. She starts to wish she hadn't pulled the trigger.
Lucky for Roxie, her idol, Velma Kelly, doesn't just kill it on stage. She killed her sister and her husband because they were having an affair. Velma is on the same cell block as Roxie, but she's more of a mean girl than a mentor. Velma isn't going to give Roxie any advice for free. That doesn't stop Roxie from modeling her own path to infamy after Velma's.
Roxie crosses the theoretical threshold from simple criminal to infamous murderess with her number "We Both Reached for the Gun." During this number, Roxie, with Billy's help, realizes that if she embellishes the facts—or outright lies—she can keep her name on the front pages of Chicago's papers. By doing that, she knocks Velma's name to the back pages and takes her place as the most famous dame in the jailhouse.
Roxie must fight to keep her name in the papers and to keep her neck out of a noose. By doing this, she allies with Billy and Mama Morton who help her find the right balance between being bad enough to appeal to the public, and good enough to avoid being convicted. In doing so, she strengthens her rivalry with Velma. There's only room for one femme fatale in Chicago.
When Velma gives an impassioned plea to Roxie, begging her to team up for a double act with the song "I Can't Do It Alone," Roxie realizes that she can do it alone. She has fame. She has a good shot at being acquitted. And she has a jazzy new haircut. Roxie has to make a big choice: to form a duet with Velma, or to go solo. With her newfound confidence, Roxie hopes to make sure her name is the only one up in lights.
Before Roxie can be a famous jazz singer, she has to get herself off death row. The second half of the movie consists of Roxie's trial, both in the court of justice and the court of public opinion. It's a literal life or death situation for Roxie Hart. If she is found guilty, she will be executed. And if she doesn't become famous, she might as well wish herself dead, because that is all she wants.
After a couple of show-stopping numbers in the courtroom, Roxie is found not guilty. However, living to see another day isn't enough for Roxie Hart. She wants to be famous, and that's a reward that she doesn't get. As soon as Roxie is found not guilty, another woman commits a crime in Chicago, and Roxie's newspaper headline is literally trampled in the mud. Her reward is snatched from her because of this bad timing.
Roxie reluctantly re-joins the real world. In Chicago, murderesses are a dime a dozen, and she finds herself forced to audition for roles that she thought would be handed to her. The life of a struggling singer isn't what she had planned on. When Velma approaches Roxie again with her proposal to become a duet, this time Roxie takes it.
In one final fantasy sequence, Roxie imagines the stunning career that she and Velma will have together. It's the career Roxie always wanted. Well, except for the fact that Velma is beside her. But Roxie plans on making sure her name is top billed, and that Velma is her second banana.
Roxie is finally a star, but only in her own head. The final number is the flashiest one yet, with Roxie and Velma dancing in unison, holding matching machine guns. Roxie literally envisions her name in lights, and a crowd of people cheering her on.
Chicago was the sin city of the 1920s—what happened in Chicago stayed in Chicago—often because you were given an offer you couldn't refuse if you even thought about squawking.
The city was huge, the second largest city in the U.S. at the time. And the sins were even bigger—sex, booze, and jazz. Fittingly, we spend most of the movie in smoky jazz clubs or dank prisons.
One of the few glimpses of the city occurs when Roxie and Fred run from the club to her apartment, when the filmmakers recreate with CGI what Chicago may have looked like then—dark and smoggy, with the L-train cruising by in the background.
The Onyx Club is "a whoopee spot, where the gin is cold and the piano's hot." It's also where Roxie first sees Velma Kelly, and the seed of her desire for fame is planted. Onyx is a hard black stone, which makes the club sound vaguely dangerous: a place you go in the dark hours of the night, where the clientele is hardened and oh-so-cool. Plus, the name just sounds awesome.
The Cook County jail for women is kind of a safe haven, at least as far as prisons go. Mama is there to watch over her flock, and we're told "Cook County ain't never hung a woman yet." So what's there to fear?
Well, Roxie still wants out, so she dreams of musical sequences as a form of mental escape. Prison noises, like water droplets and footsteps become the "Cell Block Tango." Roxie's Heartbreak Hotel becomes a Jailhouse Rock.
Jazz songs leap and twist and scat and bebop all over the place, but Chicago, taking place in a big city of jazz, doesn't. It's very linear, simple, and easy to follow. It tracks Roxie Hart from A to B, but somewhere between those two letters there's a jail and a courtroom.
In this version of Chicago, which often takes place inside Roxie's imagination, Roxie is the star of her own show… and everyone else is just backup.
The movie has an impeccable flow, though. Each scene revolves around, or is punctuated by, a song. Characters are introduced by their signature themes that explain their hopes, dreams, and motivations. What would otherwise be your typical story of a girl hungry for fame is jazzed up (pun!) by the sparkly musical numbers.
Strangely, the movie has a narrator character. Even more strangely, the narrator isn't Roxie. It's a man simply known as "the bandleader." He only lines involve introducing new characters, as he would in the Onyx Club, where Roxie sees him in real life. It's a way to keep the show within the show looking like, well, a show. And we know the show must go on.
Hey, why are all those people singing? Because this is a musical. But Chicago is a certain type of musical that integrates the songs into the story, instead of just having people burst out in ABBA songs or agonize about not being able to pay their rent in the key of C-minor.
They way Chicago integrates the music into Roxie's mind makes it a satire. Roxie wants to be a celebrity so badly that she imagines life itself as a musical. As a result, her life becomes all about fame. And the general public loves it, so they give her the fame she wants. It's a cycle of celebrity that was on point in the 1970s, when Chicago hit Broadway; valid in the 2000s, when it hit the big screen; and likely valid whenever you're reading this.
People will always do crazy things for fame and then try to glamorize it. Chicago does it with catchy musical numbers and humor, making us part of the cycle. We watch Chicago because the stars in it are popular, and the stars are popular because we watch them. It's a circle that's as vicious as Roxie Hart… and equally entertaining.
It's impossible to predict which direction the wind will blow. Just ask Al Roker. Chicago, as a city, is a fickle place addicted to fame, and fame transfers from one person to the next faster than the wind changes direction. As Billy tells Roxie:
"You are a phony celebrity. You're a flash in the pan. In a couple of weeks, no one's gonna give a s*** about you. That's Chicago."
The only way to control fame is to control the winds of public perception, and that might be harder than controlling the weather.
As the title is derived from the setting, we go more in depth on this in our analysis of the film's setting, including the Cook County Jail and the rich (and slightly psychotic) world of Roxie's imagination.
When Roxie Hart is found not guilty, it might be the worst thing that happens to her in a while. Sure, she avoids a hanging, but her budding career is basically executed on the spot.
As soon as the paper goes out with the bold INNOCENT headline, another woman commits a crime on the courthouse steps. All eyes are on her… and away from Roxie. "Don't you want to take my picture?" Roxie asks a photographer running for the scene of the crime. "Hey, I'm the famous Roxie Hart!" But she's five seconds too late. She's not famous, and no one is going to remember her name.
Even though Roxie snags an audition at the Onyx, she's already been forgotten. "Didn't she kill a guy a while back?" one guy asks. "Ah, who can keep them straight anymore?" It's all about timing, and unfortunately that's something a person can't always control.
Roxie shows fierce determination, even though her road to fame is suddenly much rougher than she expected it to be. But her career, which has stalled before it got going, needs a jumpstart. Velma Kelly is the one to jolt her into action.
Velma can't get her career back on track solo, either. Her stockings have holes in them, showing how poorly she's doing. Maybe Roxie takes advantage of Velma's desperation, but Roxie will be just as desperate before she knows it. When Velma proposes a duo act: "One jazz killer ain't nothing these days. But two…" Roxie takes it.
However, their performance is so spectacular, it's too good to be truly real.It has to be one last dream sequence of Roxie's… meaning we don't get to see exactly how their career pans out.
In Roxie's head, it's a showstopper, and at the end of the performance the crowd goes wild. Flashbulbs pop and men throw roses. Roxie announces "Believe us! We could not have done it without you!" And she's right. Roxie and Velma are famous because of public opinion—not in spite of it.
With all the men and jazz, this movie would be NC-17 rated by 1920s standards… if the 1920s had had standards of rating films. To be a jazz star, you need three things—talent, dance moves, and a whole lot of sex appeal.
There are lots of thighs, midriffs, and bottomless valleys of cleavage on display, shimmying across various stages. There's also a steamy sex scene between Roxie and Fred that also has (Fred's butt) cleavage on display for a brief, brief second. Is it explicit by "Nowadays" standards? Not at all, but some parental guidance is suggested.