20 years ago Chicago won six Oscars including Best Picture. The musical was based on a 1975 musical, which was based on a 1927 movie, which was based on a 1926 play… confusing I know. Set in 1920s Chicago, each version of the story follows a Roxie Hart who murders a man and charges her husband exorbitant sums for a legal defense that turns her into a criminal celebrity and earns her a verdict of not guilty.
The original play was intended to be a cynical satire on the corrupt criminal justice system and the concept of a famous criminal at the time. Although later versions downplay or emphasize this depending on what the writers were looking for. The 1975 musical would make significant changes to the story, including the addition of musical numbers, to lean into satirizing what it sees as an almost wacky criminal justice system. The 2002 musical film will continue this tradition by developing it further.
When you watch a version of Chicagoespecially the softer iterations, it can be easy to see it as a story about Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger in the 2002 film). However, upon reflection, you wonder why Roxie? As the film’s story goes, Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) has never lost a case for a client before, the implication is that the vast majority, if not all, of his clients have been guilty and he’s done the same tap-dancing and razzle-dazzle routine for Roxie than any of them. So the question remains, why Roxie? Why is the movie about Roxie and not Billy Flynn’s other clients, or Billy Flynn himself?
The reason is that it’s not about Roxie. Nor about Billy Flynn. Chicago is about you. The audience. Think for example of the music of the film. Traditionally, in musicals, the music is grounded in the world and is meant to be a chance for us as the audience to get a deeper insight into the characters. This is supposed to be their chance to be honest, to let us in. Look at examples in Wretched, West Side Story, or any Disney princess movie. Songs like “On My Own” or “Somewhere” are intimate moments for us to understand these characters, to develop a sympathy for the person they see themselves.
It’s just not true Chicago. First, the musical numbers are separate from the actual film. They are not anchored in the world, they are a performance that the characters put on for us, they break the fourth wall. They each start with an announcer telling us who’s about to perform before they take the stage and lie to us. Like Billy Flynn’s number “All I Care About Is Love” – a blunt lie in which a charismatic Billy Flynn tries to convince us that he does what he does for love when we really know everything, he really care about money. Every piece of music is played to us, the public. We get the same song and dance the in-universe audience gets, but we also get a peek behind the curtain, letting us know that we knowingly consume and enjoy the lies of the crooks.
Consider the death scene of Katalin Helinszki. Helinszki is a prisoner from Hungary, she does not speak English and therefore is not able to turn her life into a kind of spectacle and entertainment like other prisoners. The result is that, although she appears to be the only truly innocent prisoner in the film, she is the only one seen being hanged. Just before his hanging, the announcer comes out to introduce his “disappearing act” as he says, “For your pleasure and entertainment.” Throughout the movie, there’s this constant effort to intertwine show business and the criminal justice system, to make them look essentially the same. Billy Flynn is an expert tap dancer and ventriloquist. A master of razzle-dazzle who can forge evidence, twist words and hide it all behind expert performance and performative speech. It’s never clearer than when the Warden Mama (Queen Latifah) says, “In this town, murder is a form of entertainment. »
What Chicago to attempt to present criminal justice, murder, and the law as somehow equivalent to show business is to hold up a mirror to the public. The connection between crime and show business is how we look at both for entertainment; the link between the two worlds is us the audience. That’s why we’re played, that’s why the fourth wall is constantly broken, the movie is about us and we’re supposed to understand that it is. We’re supposed to understand that what we’re doing is cheering, slapping and laughing with a murderer walking away, a guard taking bribes, and a lawyer committing perjury. The inspiration for the original 1920s play was a real criminal celebrity culture in Chicago at the time. Curiously, its very specific message and its satirization are all the more relevant.
Take true crime, for example. One of the largest subgenres in contemporary mainstream entertainment. We watch documentaries or accounts of horrific crimes, sometimes against the wishes of victims and families, investigating them for show. Consider the publicity of celebrity trials, the way we all flock to every piece of evidence, and the public display of those involved. More recently, we can think of the Heard/Depp case. I won’t comment on the trial itself, but it was a strange experience to tweet shortly after it ended and see people lamenting its end. For some people, there seemed to be a bummer that this show was over, like when a TV show airs its finale and the audience mourns the end of an entertainment… Except it’s not fiction. The people involved are real people, and the case has real implications for the wider culture.
Chicago, after all this time, remains more relevant than ever because it was never about characters. It was always about the public. Always about telling us to be honest with ourselves. As much as we pose as moral spectators in search of justice, Chicago cut through the bullshit and said we watched for much more superficial and selfish reasons. He gave us exactly what we wanted, then handed us a mirror and asked, “Are you having fun?
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Chicago is about you, not Roxie — that’s why it works – CNET – ApparelGeek