Sunday, December 27, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "Chicago" (2002)

Scene from Chicago
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

Release Date: December 27, 2002
Director: Rob Marshall
Written By: Bill Condon (Screenplay), Bob Fosse & Fred Ebb (Musical), Maurine Dallas Watkins (Play)
Starring: Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Gere
Genre: Comedy, Crime,  Musical
Running Time: 113 minutes

Oscar Wins: 6
-Best Picture
-Best Supporting Actress (Catherine Zeta-Jones)
-Best Art Direction
-Best Costume Design
-Best Editing
-Best Sound Mixing

Oscar Nominations: 7
-Best Actress (Renee Zellweger)
-Best Director (Rob Marshall)
-Best Supporting Actor (John C. Reilly)
-Best Supporting Actress (Queen Latifah)
-Best Adapted Screenplay
-Best Cinematography
-Best Original Song ("I Move On")

Other Best Picture Nominees

-Gangs of New York
-The Hours
-The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
-The Pianist

And the winner is...

The history of musicals in the 21st century seems to pit the genre as a dying breed. While there are those proud few who become box office sensations, The Academy hasn't gone out of their way to recognize them as much as they used to in the 50's and 60's. However, there was a brief time in 2002 when it looked like director Rob Marshall's Chicago was going to break barriers and trumpet in a new era. After all, camera techniques had improved massively over the decades and that meant that more impressive visuals could be applied. Even if that seemed like false hope, Chicago is itself a loving ode to the Bob Fosse energy and the power of what glitz and glamour could be in a satire that was set to song. If it isn't the best musical in history, it's at least one of the few that have made an impact at The Oscars since the millennium, and that may be enough for its success. 

The story of Chicago actually goes back to the time of its story. During the 1920's, The Chicago Tribune ran a story about two different murders, of which a play in 1926 would be adapted from. This would lead to two film adaptations: Chicago (1927) and Roxie Hart (1942), the latter of whom starred Ginger Rogers. The actual musical for which the film was based wouldn't come until 1975 when Bob Fosse decided to adapt the play into a musical by choreographing the entire show to jazz-style dancing. Fosse, who was an eccentric and vibrant filmmaker, had plans to make it into a film starring Frank Sinatra, Liza Minelli, and Goldie Hawn. It fell through when he died in 1987. Still, the musical was revived in 1996 and approached the show from a more minimalist setting, choosing to do every routine to vaudeville sets. It is one of the rare examples of a revival surpassing the success of an original run. The show's run would itself by very successful up through 2010.

Having made a TV movie version of Annie, director Rob Marshall was on his way to talk to producers about potentially making a movie version of Rent. Marshall shifted the subject to Chicago, suggesting that the story would take place in Roxie's mind. They were eventually persuaded to make it. Among the cast for the musical, most of them had never had any real theatrical experience that would benefit their performances. Renee Zellweger didn't know how to dance. Richard Gere would learn to tap dance over three months for a very minimal amount of screen time. Then there was Catherine Zeta-Jones, who fell into the role, as if by mistake. During a party, she was overheard by producer Martin Richards. She didn't really want to be in the movie, but did so when she discovered that she had the chance to sing "All That Jazz." 

The film's production doesn't really have any major crises behind the scenes. With exception to a few moments, there weren't any special effects used in the film. There was also conflict raised over a character speaking Hungarian. Due to her Russian accent, it was already hard to understand what she was saying. To make matters worse, she finished the statement in her native language. The film also had various songs that were cut from the final production, including "My Own Best Friend" and "Me and My Baby." The latter however can be heard briefly in the background when Roxie announces her pregnancy. The soundtrack was also the first to use Sony's Digital Stream Direct process, thus being released on the multi-channel SACD format.

Along Moulin Rouge, Chicago was considered to be one of the films that ushered in a resurgence of movie musicals in the early 21st century. With its vibrant production and instantly memorable songs, it received wide acclaim and helped film to embrace song and dance for the next 10 years. Miramax, who had attempted to make the film as early as the mid-90's, would benefit greatly from the film when it became the highest grossing film in the studio's history at $306 million internationally. By the time that The Academy Awards came around, it was already a juggernaut that seemed impossible to top. Considering how few successful musicals had been made in the years surrounding it, it kind of was a big deal.

Then The Oscars pretty much proved how much it was willing to embrace it. Much like Moulin Rouge the year prior, Chicago racked up a lot of Oscar nominations, earning 13 total. While it didn't break too many records or set a new standard, it was the first musical film since 1968's Oliver to win Best Picture. As of 2015, it is also the last. There have been a few to be nominated (such as 2012's Les Miserables), but none have stood as much of a chance. While Marshall didn't win Best Director, he joins a small class of directors to win Best Picture for their big screen debut (including Sam Mendes for American Beauty only three years prior). 

As stated, the impact that Chicago had on reviving movie musicals was not to be underestimated. Even if it technically started with Moulin Rouge, the Best Picture win definitely helped to suggest that musicals were going to come back in droves. To some extent, this was true, as dozens of films have come out in the decade following the film's success. This includes The Producers, Rent, Sweeney Todd: Demon Barber From Fleet Street, and Enchanted; most of which were also adapted from stage productions. In 2013, The Academy dedicated their ceremony to musicals. As a result, it featured Zeta-Jones performing as her Chicago character in a brief spot while singing "All That Jazz." While, as of 2015, the success of musical films has trickled down, there are still a few released every few years to varying degrees of reception. In a sense, Chicago did too good of a job and likely doesn't receive too much credit for the trend it participated in setting.

Chicago is a musical that is live and vibrant in all of the ways that its stage show's creator Bob Fosse would've wanted. Mixing colorful costumes, catchy song numbers, and fun set pieces; Marshall pretty much made the idea of the musical exciting again. With great performances by Zellweger and Zeta-Jones, the show's personality was rich and ready to capture attention. So whether or not it deserves credit for bringing back musicals (and whether or not you care about it), the film's impact is definitely strong and an achievement for what big budgeted productions could be with the right people involved. Is it the best musical? Probably not. However, it's still an undeniably striking one to witness; capturing the very essence of the magic of cinema.

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