Chicago Blu-ray Review

One film genre I am not the biggest fan of is the movie musical. Sure, there are ones that I greatly admire and enjoy: Singin” In the Rain, The Sound of Music (come on now, dancing Hitler Youth is both funny and fun to watch), The Producers, Moulin Rouge! (the last time Nicole Kidman officially looked hot) and Dancer In The Dark, the Lars Von Trier musical drama that proved to be both depressing and entertaining at the same time (as opposed to the recent crapfest Dreamgirls which was just depressing to watch, period.). And while I have no problem enjoying a musical on stage, I really have a hard time buying into people breaking out into song at the drop of a hat in a motion picture. It just seems really” silly, and it just takes me out of the movie altogether.

Such is not the case, however, with the 2002 film adaptation of Bob Fosse’s Chicago, an energetic, very funny and pointed look at notoriety through crime directed by Rob Marshall (who went on to torture audiences worldwide with the terrible chick flick Memoirs of a Geisha). A big hit four and half years ago in cinemas, Chicago now makes its debut in the HD world courtesy of a new Blu-ray edition from Buena Vista Home Entertainment.

Everyone loves a legend, but in Chicago, there’s only room for one. Velma Kelley (Catherine Zeta-Jones) burns in the spotlight as a nightclub sensation. When she shoots her philandering husband, she lands on Chicago’s famed murderess row, retains Chicago’s slickest lawyer, Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), and is the center of the town’s most notorious murder case, only increasing her celebrity.

Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) has dreams of singing and dancing her way to stardom. When Roxie’s abusive lover tries to walk out on her, she shoots him dead and ends up in prison too. Billy recognizes a made-for-tabloids story, and postpones Velma’s court date to take on Roxie’s case. Infamy is Roxie’s ticket to stardom, and Billy turns her crime of passion into celebrity headlines. In a town like Chicago, where murder is a form of entertainment; she becomes a bona fide star ” much to Velma’s chagrin.

It took quite some time for Hollywood to get Bob Fosse’s Chicago to the big screen, but it turned out to be well worth the wait. Buoyed by Martin Walsh’s superb editing and Dion Beebee’s fluid cinematography, Marshall perfectly captures the energy, sexiness and fun of the stage production, with minimal sacrifices and changes made along the way. Bill Condon’s screenplay is fairly surface-thin (something he repeated with the recent Dreamgirls), but Fosse’s keen observations of our society’s obsession with celebrities remain intact, views that seem to be more relevant today than they did three decades ago.

Gere, Zellweger and Zeta-Jones may all have seemed like odd casting choices for a movie musical, but as was the case with Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor in Moulin Rouge, they prove to be the right choices. Zeta-Jones makes for a perfect Velma; Zellweger is quite good as Roxie while Gere has a great time as Billy. John C. Reilly, as Roxie’s sad-sack husband Amos, and Queen Latifah as prison warden Matron “Mama” Morton are both excellent in supporting performances.

Chicago may have lacked the inventiveness and audaciousness of Moulin Rouge and the emotional punch of Dancer In The Dark, but it is great fun, filled with terrific performances, top-flight filmmaking and tunes that you’ll be humming for quite some time afterwards. It’s sexy, funny, smart”and, apologies in advance”all that jazz. The picture on Chicago is beautiful, plain and simple (and I am not just talking about the two leading ladies, either). The 1080p, AVC/MPEG-4 video (approx. 1.85:1 theatrical ratio) is as sharp as a tack, with colors and detail literally jumping off of the screen. Black levels are rock solid, as are flesh tones and contrasts. Every so often, film grain makes its presence known, but that is an issue with the actual film and not the disc.

Even more impressive, however, is the audio. Be it the uncompressed 48 kHz, 24-bit 5.1 surround or the 5.1 Dolby Digital track, Chicago delivers an audio kick that you feel in your gut right from the start and rare does it let up until the end credits are over. While the uncompressed audio provided a bit more oomph in the bass department, I felt that the Dolby Digital track seemed a bit cleaner and was my audio track of choice. Either way, Disney has set a new standard of excellence with the audio on this disc.

Buena Vista has been a bit slow in the extras department when it comes to supplements on their Blu-ray releases. Sure, there have been a smattering here and there that have been ported over from the original DVD release and one or two exclusive HD goodies thrown in for good measure, but overall the material has been sorely lacking.

That seems to be changing at the Mouse House and doing so in a big way. The recent release of The Guardian has a healthy dose of bonus material as does The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But neither has as much bonus swag as Chicago does. If you look at the back cover of the disc jacket, it may not look like a lot was ported over from the two DVD editions, but there is quite a bit for fans to enjoy. All are presented in 480p and 4×3 full frame video. Feature-Length Audio Commentary track to start things off. They discuss the production and the trials and tribulations they endured to get the whole thing off the ground and finished. It’s an interesting track that offers up a fair amount of information not covered on the other supplements.

A pair of behind-the-scenes docs comes next. First off is the standard half-hour Behind-The-Scenes look at the movie (28 minutes), complete with cast and crew interview bits and a brief look into the history of how the story of Roxie Hart evolved first into the stage play and then the movie. Good for a single watch, but not much more.

More involving for fans of both the play and the movie is From Stage to Screen: the History of Chicago. It runs almost the same length as the behind-the-scenes television special (27 minutes), but spends more time on the origins of the stage play than it does the movie (although that is covered here as well) and contains interviews with some of the people originally involved with the first production, including Chita Rivera and the late Jerry Orbach.

An Intimate Look at Rob Marshall is a twenty-minute feature that examines the director’s career up until Chicago and features interview segments with Marshall and a few of his previous collaborators. This runs approximately twenty minutes and has some interesting trivia bits along the way.

A trio of smaller features comes next: Academy Award-Winning Production Designer John Myhre (six minutes) highlights the work and effort the designer did to capture the style and flair of early twentieth-century Chicago. Academy Award-Winning Costume Designer Colleen Atwood (five and a half minutes) has a brief interview with Ms. Atwood and examines the lavish clothing designed for the film. Both are standard fare worth a look.

I drew the line, however, at When Liza Minnelli Became Roxie Hart (13 minutes). For the first nine minutes or so, a story is recollected about how Minnelli subbed for Gwen Verdon on stage when Verdon fell ill. That isn’t the rough part. The rough part comes in the next four minutes, in which we get to see a clip of Liza singing a song from the production on The Dinah Shore Show from the 1970s. If you want to really hurt someone you hate and happen to have this disc in your house when they are over, cue this part up. They’ll be crying for mercy faster than Jack Bauer’s worm of a brother on 24. I know I was.

The final section of extras on the Blu-ray is a healthy dose of Deleted and Extended Musical Performances. The one deleted sequence is a number called Class, sung by Queen Latifah and Catherine Zeta-Jones. It’s a decent number but I can see why it was cut. Six extended numbers follow (All That Jazz, When You’re Good To Momma, Cell Block Tango, We Both Reached For the Gun, Mister Cellophane and All I Care About) and aren’t all that different from what made it into the final print. From Start to Finish is an interesting mix of rehearsal footage and final product showing how each of the three leads worked on a particular song (Richard Gere’s is All I Care About, Zeta-Jones” is All That Jazz and Rene Zellweger’s is Nowadays). Finally, there are four numbers shown in their Rehearsal stage: I Can’t Do It Alone, Hot Honey Rag, We Both Reached For the Gun and Cell Block Tango.

Chicago is one of those rare Best Picture winners that are actually a lot of fun to watch. And Buena Vista’s excellent Blu-ray presentation only makes it better. A beautiful picture, a remarkable audio presentation and enough extras to choke Actor’s Equity, this disc is a must own for fans of both the stage production and the film.

– Shawn Fitzgerald

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