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March 11, 2003

Chicago

Not much to say about Chicago, really. Great picture, but not Best Picture, in my opinion. It’s a terrific ride, sporting both razzle and dazzle, with a bit of sparkle. I have no complaints about this film that couldn’t, probably, be applied to any musical. Richard Gere actually didn’t bother me at all, and that’s kind of a big deal. The only other movie I can recall with an enjoyable dose of Gere is Primal Fear, which might just mean that I like the city of Chicago. Which I do.

Here’s the big question that Chicago raised for me, though: Will American audiences appreciate a musical that isn’t itself about show-business in some way? Both Moulin Rouge and Chicago have musical, showy characters who translate easily to a musical performance. The musical world of Moulin Rouge is so exaggerated that there isn’t much of a reality for the film to break away from when its dance numbers erupt. Most of Chicago‘s musical numbers are internal monologues or montages; both of which are narrative tricks which separate the singing scenes from the reality of the talking scenes. So, will audiences buy a musical motion picture wherein ordinary folks break into song and dance within a scene rather than between scenes?

Actually, I think so. The feature that’s restoring the power of the musical, I think, is the energy level. Many of the traditional musicals had a rising and falling energy like any other film. I’m thinking of the sort of musical that’s just about evenly split between singing peaks and dialogue peaks, like The Sound of Music or The Wizard of Oz. On a scale of energetic activity measured from 1 to 10, those movies run the range like any broad story. Moulin Rouge never drops much below a 6 on the hyperactivity scale, and Chicago dips just a bit lower. These movies come down off their ramps like a skateboard pro, immediately swooping into the next show-piece. That’s terrific, but I wonder if more ponderous musicals will meet the same success.

In the grand scheme, I think what Moulin Rouge and Chicago do so well is traverse the comedic and dramatic gap. We’re carried through anguish and elation in these movies, while so much of Hollywood’s loudest fare sets a course in one direction and rockets away. That’s the hitch, though. So far we’ve seen two very successful, very loud musicals. Will a less-exaggerated, more-varied musical do as well?

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