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EVERY NOW and then, Hollywood comes up with something that takes you by the sheer force of its story telling — it uses all kinds of formats, tries new methods to wow audiences and fill films with such technical wizardry, that you end up impressed. It could be old wine in a new bottle but it does not matter when the narration takes you along so effortlessly that it's a cruise through a mine of talent. And this one is a musical. Chicago is a traditional sort of musical, the kind devotees have dreamt of for a long time. What is really nice is that it does not try to update this genre but goes to the heart with its unabashed propensity for old-fashioned entertainment.

Set in the glitzy 1920s, the story follows the exploits of two femme fatales — Velma (Catherine Zeta Jones) and Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) who have two things in common — the love of limelight and the temper and fury to kill husbands and lovers, if unfaithful. Based on the popular Broadway show, Chicago begins with Velma Kelly rushing into the club where she is a night-time sensation, after killing her husband and her sister, who are having an affair — while the sisters were part of a double act.

After a spectacular rendition of `All That Jazz,' she is arrested in front of the crowd where Roxie is also a witness. Roxie is this unfaithful wife, married and perhaps unwisely to Amos Hart (John C. Reilly). She thinks her lover has connections in the entertainment business, and hopes he can make her a star some day. When she finds out that he was lying to her all this while, she kills him in a fit of rage. She is thrown into prison and awaits trial. There, she meets Velma, who is being defended by a hot-shot lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), who has `never lost a case' and more importantly, has the Chicago Press eating out of his hand. He is cajoled into taking on Roxie's case, thanks to a loyal husband who never really realises that all his Roxie wants is freedom and stardom. But once Billy takes the case on, he realises the potential for mass publicity and goes about creating a twisted version of Roxie's story. He makes her out to be this sweet, innocent victim of the jazz underworld, and an unresponsive husband.

Velma is now furious with all the attention on Roxie, and there begins the biggest catfight played out in the darkness of the prisonThe story is representative of the times when newspapers literally roared headlines, killers were romanticised or vilified, cops, lawyers and robbers lived in each others' pockets and newspapers read like pulp fiction. The film revels in all this through its songs and dances — the tunes are catchy and the dancing consistently excellent. The scenes are well played out with some standing out for their choreography. The glitz, the glamour and perhaps even the sleazy atmosphere, add up to a really splashy film.

The slippery, dangerous moves make each dance one of seduction, backstabbing and betrayals. In satirical numbers such as "We Both Reached For The Gun," the manipulation of the media-hungry public is shown in its full glory. The best part is that the characters do not morph into performers — every scene plays out as a comedy drama. Only that it is cut in with musical numbers.

You'll never understand why Catherine Zeta Jones, with her delicate, refined beauty has been cast as the saucy, conniving Velma. Till you see the film, of course. Those are the very qualities she uses to trick everyone into believing that she is innocent. As for Zellweger, her sugary exterior has nothing to do with her sneaky, selfish character — but then that is what makes the media and the jury believe that she is "not guilty of murder."

Richard's Billy is probably the most surprising element — one wouldn't have thought he could perform so well, let alone dance. But he does both with such panache that he seems made for this role — he is cheeky, sly and positively dynamic.

Queen Latifah as Mama, the prison matron, is wickedly delightful. Director Rob Marshall has created a film that maintains the flavour and tenor of Broadway — he makes a film that moves evenly in spite of all its numbers. It is no surprise the Chicago garnered six Oscars. It's so American, that if the Oscars didn't recognise it this way, who will?


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