The 1920s was the decade for all things extravagant and frivolous, all about enjoying the many pleasures that life could offer. That very atmosphere is encapsulated in the magnificent musical Chicago, first introduced to the stage by Maurine Dallas Watkins in 1926. Based upon real life murderesses, Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner, the project was ground-breaking and risk-taking, in a time when women were looking for the freedom to do what they pleased. It spurred many adaptations to the screen, including the Academy Award winning eponymous film of 2002, directed by Rob Marshall.
We follow Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger), an aspiring cabaret star who murders her lover Fred Casely (Dominic West) after finding out he’d been unfaithful to her and lying about his true intentions. After promising to make her famous, Fred ended up using her for his own pleasure and intended to leave her behind.
Roxie finds herself locked up in the all-women Cook County Jail and awaits her fate among the other murderesses, most of which are on death row. One of them is the infamous Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), former cabaret sensation who murdered her sister, whom she shared the stage with, along with her own husband after finding out they were having an affair with each other.
The movie is structured to entertain and delight every step of the way. The story is told through imaginary performances put on by the various characters, as a way to check in with the audience and portray themselves the way they would like to be seen. Chicago tells a sensual satirical tale on women’s emancipation through the spotlights of the stage or the fading light of jail cell, in lace and fishnets or prison uniforms.
“Cell Block Tango”
“They had it coming all along, cause if they used us, and abused us, how could you tell us that we were wrong?“
In a sensual first group number, taking place during Roxie’s first night in jail, the other inhabitants of the prison reveal the reasons for their incarceration. One woman’s husband used to lounge around and chew his gum too loud. The other’s lover – a supposed single man – turned out to have 6 wives, another’s husband was abusive and madly jealous, and accused her of having an affair with the milkman. One woman even turns out to be falsely accused and pleads her innocence. These women have punished the men who have wronged and neglected them, calling it “murder but not crime”.
This performance is just as free-spirited as the performers, but their performances are used as a way to escape from a reality in which they are constantly muzzled by men who get to use them as they please and get away with it. Whether we as viewers consider it deserved or uncalled for, and however cruel their cold-blooded deeds are, the scene makes for an empowering anthem about women embracing the power they have been denied for too long.
“We Both Reached For The Gun”
“Stay away from jazz and liquor, and men who play for fun!“
In order to avoid death sentence, Roxie hires the most prolific and charismatic lawyer available, Billy Flynn (Richard Gere), who assures her that if she follows his instructions, she will be set free. With an impeccable trial-winning record, Flynn takes a hold of Roxie’s story and twists it in order for her to appeal to the public. During this number, Roxie is sitting on his lap, all made up and tied to strings that only Flynn can control. He manipulates her every move and word. She is deprived of her own autonomy, only serving as an object and unable to speak for herself.
The tabloids take turns asking Roxie – the puppet – questions, which Flynn answers for her. He makes up a story about her growing up in the Convent of the Sacred-Heart, and completely changes the narrative of the night she murdered her lover Fred. Instead, Fred is the one who got mad at her for leaving him, and pointed his pistol at her. In Flynn’s re- imagination of the events, they both reached for the gun, and Roxie managed to shoot him out of self-defense. According to Flynn, she isn’t glad she killed him, but very sorry and desperate to make things right. She even makes a point to apologize for her lack of reason.
Billy Flynn’s strategy to lift the charges is to win the press over by fabricating a story of an understandable mistake, influenced by jazz and liquor, which deviate women from the right path. Roxie has to bend to please the expectations that society holds over her head as a woman, expectations of purity, faith and submissiveness that don’t apply to men. Like all of her fellow jailbirds, Roxie has to be resilient and docile if she wants to escape the corrupted system, leaving behind her independence.
“Who in case she doesn’t hang, can say she started with a bang?“
Taken under Flynn’s wing and confident that she will soon walk out as a free woman, Roxie sees an opportunity to fulfill her dreams of fame when the media takes a liking to her and paints her as the new sensation. She puts on a fabulous, sexy performance for her future crowd. Dreaming of turning her tragedy into fame, she considers her incarceration as something that could set her apart and plans to use it as a stepping point for a successful career. Outside, women are doing their hair like her and dressing up like she does. She becomes an icon, in spite of the crime she has committed.
“Nowadays / Hot Honey Rag”
“In fifty years or so, it’s gonna change you know. But oh it’s heaven, nowadays!“
Velma Kelly, who has been in jail for a while, and has also hired Flynn, is completely abandoned by him and the press once Roxie’s story gets out and makes it to the front page. Later on, the same thing happens to Roxie right after her trial is won and she is declared not guilty. The news has barely reached the streets that a new woman, dressed as Roxie, kills a man on the pavement. Roxie doesn’t even have the time to celebrate her newfound freedom before the media immediately jumps on the new story.
This is also telling of today’s society, where women are worshiped as the next best thing one second and suddenly dismissed when something or someone better comes around. Roxie becomes irrelevant and struggles to make it into the business alone, failing auditions. Her reputation is not enough for her to succeed. It isn’t enough for Velma either, who struggles to get back on stage as well after being released. The two make a deal and bring up a new performance, owning up to their murderous past, called ‘Roxie Hart & Velma Kelly’, Chicago’s own killers drillers, scintillating sinners.
With this last fantastic performance, Chicago portrays the way women are built to stand against one another and compete against each other. In the beginning, Roxie worships Velma as an artist and as a woman, but working with Flynn leads her to want the spotlight only for herself. She ends up standing in the way of Velma getting her freedom and the latter is left to her own devices. In the end, sticking together is the only way for both of them to get what they want, and it is a testament to how much women can accomplish when they stand together and not against one another.