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The future of the movie musical

March 4 2003

Although Moulin Rouge was a huge success, Chicago demonstrates some of the problems facing a revival of the film musical, reports Margo Jefferson.

I am one of that band of people who wished for the return of the movie musical, knowing that the mass marketeers of Hollywood had no interest in us.

Until 2001, that is, when Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge took off as a musical odyssey into postmodern techno-pastiche (19th-century Paris, 20th-century pop-rock, 21st-century camerawork).

Rob Marshall's Chicago isn't the same thing at all. Chicago comes to the screen with a pedigree: the stage version was directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse (the last of Broadway's great choreographer-auteurs) to a John Kander and Fred Ebb score that had everything to do with vaudeville and nothing to do with rock.

It's a hit - good box office, good reviews and 13 Oscar nominations. But there are dissenters, too.

Take the dancing. Why the incessant cutting that denies us access to a whole body in motion? Isn't that what dance is about? Fred Astaire was considered an innovator for refusing to allow his directors to cut when a human form was on screen. Yes, the show has always depended on hard, fast pacing, but, for my money, it has always been too long. And the structure had to change for the screen.

Onstage, it is pure theatre razzle-dazzle that flaunts its proscenium-built dance numbers. In Marshall's hands, the pace is maddening. There is no stillness anywhere, ever. Chicago aspired to the fast, polyrhythmic editing we saw in Moulin Rouge. But its editing (like the score, to be fair) heads towards the mono-rhythmic.

Despite my irritation, the movie moderately entertained me. But the day after, I was grumpy, as if I had a hangover. It was a sensory hangover, brought on by that editing frenzy. Movements reduced to segments. Body parts that sliced and slithered through space to an implacable 4/4 beat. (Here's a leg kicking, here's a torso undulating, But don't think you're ever going to see them at the same time, especially if they belong to the same body.)

Then there's the problem of actors who can't really dance. Catherine Zeta-Jones makes Velma Kelly, the nightclub entertainer and murderess extraordinaire, smugly ruthless. She gives that knockout opening number, All That Jazz, the right self-centred wantonness, and she moves like the competent stage dancer she once was.

But she does not move like the chorus dancers who are allowed to strut next to none of their stuff because they surround her. Watch the female prisoners dancing beside her in Cell Block Tango; snatch fugitive glimpses of the male chorus in All That Jazz. Their breath and muscles work together. They live in their bodies: she makes a guest appearance in hers.

Renee Zellweger is a delicious actress. Whatever the role, we always feel her emotions pulsing. They take surprising turns.

It's fine that she isn't much of a dancer or a singer. Her character, Roxie Hart, dreams of being a star precisely because she is not star material.

But I did want Zellweger to be more saucy at times, more quick.

This approach is a directorial choice, as if she and Marshall had decided that she would channel the hapless, small-town girl played by Marilyn Monroe in Bus Stop, along with just a bit of Gwen Verdon's slyness.

Chicago has lots of sensual treats: chandeliers and white satin sheets, smoky nightclubs, lustrous, wood-panelled offices, gleaming male torsos and female flesh barely confined by scant, glittering costumes.

Then why didn't Chicago feel sexy? Maybe because people don't always tease, trick and seduce at high speed. I felt the most sexual energy on screen when Zellweger, Queen Latifah (as the prison warden) and Zeta-Jones were singing. We could watch their faces. Their movements were shaped by the song's rhythm and meaning. They could time their own effects and charm us with their idiosyncrasies.

My objections became so insistent - and repetitive - that I decided to test them against the reactions of people who love classic musicals, but also enjoyed Chicago.

What they said is best summed up in the words of Jeffrey Shaw, a dedicated theatre-goer and computer guru. Before starting the Computer Bakery, Shaw managed cabaret acts in the 1970s and worked at the Ballroom, a Manhattan haven for musical theatre performers.

New York has always nurtured the most passionate, best-informed audiences. They attend previews, then go back to the show mid-run to see what has changed. They read theatre history along with up-to-date reviews. The best of them fight the nostalgia that can attack people with long memories and strong opinions like a degenerative disease.

The show was definitely not sexy, Shaw said. "Greed for fame and power are the centre now, not sex," he explained. "Which is perfect for our times."

Checkmate. And suited to Marshall.

In Fosse's work, bodies arranged themselves into perfect angles, stretching each movement to the limit with insolent sexiness. Marshall is a well-trained Fosse descendant, not a blazing original. How many artists are? I agree with Shaw's assessment:

"He took the show as it was. Then he chopped away ruthlessly, till all that was left was what worked. For that discipline alone, we have to be grateful."

What does all of this mean for the future of movie musicals? We don't know yet. Marshall and Luhrmann have both been accused of kowtowing to low, music-video tastes.

But music videos aren't the problem: you can find lots of variety and innovation there.

Amid the debacle of his television interviews, let us recall that Michael Jackson was the pioneer of great dance videos: to watch him was to be mesmerised.

Madonna brought theatrical spectacle to the form; hip-hop gave us new percussive and acrobatic moves.

The first time I saw Spike Jonze's music video for Fatboy Slim's Weapon of Choice, with Christopher Walken moving through a glass-and-steel corporate space like some eccentric, Night-of-the-Living-Dead hoofer, I wanted to shout, "Give Jonze and Walken a movie musical now!"

But videos also use movement to keep our eyes busy when the musicians aren't doing much. Directors treat drumsticks and guitars like bodies or cartoon objects. Performer looks at a splash of green paint and makes funny face. We don't react to colours or objects in motion in the same way we do to people: they don't demand the same kind of energy. Those are the kinds of distinctions that movie musical directors need to keep exploring.

I'm still not happy about Chicago. But I'm glad it's there. It helps make the next step possible.

-New York Times

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