Based on the story of two real celebrity murderesses who lived in the 1920s, Chicago has been parlayed into a 1926 Broadway play, a 1927 silent movie, a 1942 film starring Ginger Rogers, and a modern Broadway show, which debuted in 1975 and was revived in 1996. The Twenties are roaring in the Windy City, and Roxie Hart wants a piece of the action. Lights, live music, skimpy costumes and lots of background dancers: she has her sights set on her own vaudeville act. She’d give anything to be like beautiful Jazz songstress Velma Kelly and see her name on the local marquee. And she knows that her marriage to dopey, sweet, un-enthralling Amos won’t be her ticket to fame and fortune. So she starts "fooling around" with other men. Fooling around leads to "screwing around" (defined as "fooling around without dinner") with Fred Casely, who says he’s got connections down at the Jazz club. Then she discovers that the only kind of connections on Fred’s mind happen between bed sheets, and she knocks him off with her husband’s pistol. Ironically, she finds herself on "murderer’s row" at the women’s prison right next to the great Ms. Kelly, who has recently dispatched her own husband and sister after catching them in an affair.
With the help of Matron Mama Morton, both Roxie and Velma get hooked up with smooth-talking lawyer Billy Flynn, who boasts that he’s never lost a case defending a female criminal. For $5,000 (and a little action on the side) Flynn vows to create such a public outpouring of sympathy and support for his clients that no jury could possibly convict them. And so he does. Smartly mingled into the story line are bombastic showstoppers and heartrending solo numbers that both develop the characters and give a glimpse of the vaudeville fame to which Roxie aspires. Everyone gets into the song and dance, and it’s easy to see why the stage show that inspired this film has recently received revived acclaim on Broadway and overseas.
positive elements: Through the media frenzy that Billy Flynn whips up, Chicago satirizes the ability of journalists to sway public opinion, tugging heartstrings and overshadowing the truth. The slick lawyer truly believes, "It’s all a three-ring circus—these trials, the whole world. It’s all show business." To sarcastically prove this point, one musical number features Flynn as puppet master for a chorus of reporters, putting words in their mouths and telling the public exactly what he wants them to believe. Another musical interlude shows him tap dancing his way into the minds of the jury, not allowing them to think, but whipping them up emotionally until they’re eating out of his hand. At the height of the fame he creates for Roxie, one reporter announces, "She’s the sweetest little girl ever accused of murder in Chicago. Women want to look like her. Men want to date her. And little girls even want to take her home [in the form of a doll]." Though Flynn’s dog and pony show is overdone and unrealistic, the message is clear that our society allows the news media far too much control over our ideas about truth. It’s also easy to see that famous people are often admired and imitated just because they’re famous, and not because they’re worth emulating.
Throughout Roxie’s ordeal, Amos is hopelessly devoted to her (though he does threaten to divorce her when he’s told she’s carrying a child that isn’t his).
spiritual content: Apparently raised Catholic, Roxie offers up half-serious prayers and directs flippant appeals to "Jesus, Mary and Joseph." A couple of times, Flynn stops her and tells her to trust in him instead. Flynn arrogantly proclaims, "If Jesus had lived in Chicago today, and if he came to me with $5,000, well, things would have turned out differently." When Roxie supposes aloud that her best bet is to tell the jury the truth, Flynn says, "The truth is a one-way ticket to the death house."
sexual content: Undoubtedly the most disturbing part of the film, invading every area from costumes and dancing to lyrics and dialogue. A man grabs Roxie’s behind. Roxie and Fred are shown undressing (quick cutaway shots imply more than they show). They’re also seen in bed having sex, during which Fred purposely overturns Roxie and Amos’ wedding photograph. Dissatisfied with her milquetoast husband, Roxie complains, "When he made love to me, it was like he was fixin’ a carburetor." Hoping he’ll have an affair and end her misery, she says, "If I ever caught Amos slipping it to someone else, I’d throw him a party." Fred admits he lied to Roxie to get her in bed ("You were hot stuff. I would have said anything to get a piece of that"). Matron Mama Morton’s solo number is full of cleavage and bawdy innuendo. The "Cellblock Tango" mixes violent and sexual imagery. Dancers dressed in lingerie often strike sexual poses. Billy Flynn seems to expect sexual favors from his clients. Innuendo is common, and the women performers make much of selling sensuality for fame and fortune.
violent content: Although the crimes are stylized and not portrayed graphically (some are not shown at all), this movie is about murders and the women who commit them. Onstage, Roxie and Velma use fake Tommy guns to draw oohs and aahhs from the crowd. Offstage, Fred is shown shoving Roxie in the bedroom. She shoots him pointblank three times with a pistol. "Six Merry Murderesses" in the jail perform a whole number about how they killed their husbands or lovers. The theme of the song is, yeah, I did it, but it wasn’t wrong. ("He had it coming. ... If you’da been there, I bet you would’a done the same.") One female murderer is hanged onscreen. And Roxie’s crime is clearly the source of her notoriety. When she dreams of having her own vaudeville act after she gets out of prison, Flynn tells her that killing Fred is what will attract people to her show. "That’s all the audience wants to say—that they saw someone famous." Despite all this, the script also makes a point about how desensitized our culture is to violence. Roxie has to work hard to stay in the spotlight, since other women are killing their husbands and threatening to steal her fame. We see one other lady kill her husband and two women she finds in bed with him. Near the end of the film, an onlooker asks, "Roxie Hart. Didn’t she kill a guy a while back?" To which the response is, "Ah, who can keep ‘em straight anymore?"
crude or profane language: Sexual slang dominates, but there’s also half-a-dozen s-words and a dozen mild profanities. God and Jesus’ names are misused 10 or 12 times.
drug and alcohol content: Social drinking takes place in the Jazz club. Mama pours drinks for favored prisoners. Male and female characters smoke lots of cigars and cigarettes. The now well-known show tune "All That Jazz" talks about a club "where the gin is cold, but the piano’s hot."
other negative elements: Both Billy Flynn and his clients lie to the judge and jury in order to get the ruling they want. Roxie tells Velma that the two of them having a show together would never work because, she says, "I hate you." Velma replies, "There’s only one business in the world where that’s not a problem."
conclusion: Chicago arrives on the heels of Oscar nominee Moulin Rouge! and, like its musical predecessor, dazzles audiences with color, action and rip-roaring sound. With the proven success of Rouge! and the rising sensation of Chicago, Time columnist Jess Cagle’s recent pronouncement rings especially true: "American audiences didn’t tire of musicals. They tired of bad musicals." Cagle predicts that we’ll soon see a new wave of high-quality movie musicals. For lovers of the genre like me, those are exciting words. But if the sexual content of Rouge! and Chicago is any indicator of the moral direction of this genre, I’m worried. Moulin Rouge! is set in a brothel, and includes a couple of scenes that will make families more than a little uncomfortable. At least it proffers a wealth of positive life lessons and maintains a modicum of modesty. All the salacious things that it could have done (but didn’t), Chicago does. That gives this musical a bawdiness that makes it absolutely inappropriate for young viewers and, at best, disconcerting for older ones. Chicago is fun. It’s flashy. And I hope it does give rise to more well-produced musical movies. But it wallows in sexual imagery and spotlights some of life’s nastiest stuff—murder, adultery and an uncontrollable obsession with fame.