- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 22, 2003

''Chicago," expected to win big at tomorrow's Academy Awards, has been garnering applausefor reviving the movie musical. Whether or not that's a fair claim, it certainly implies that "Chicago" has advanced the form and brought new life to dance on the screen.
That is hardly the case.
The film generates a sense of excitement and movement from its very first moments, but that excitement comes from camerawork, brilliant editing and the elaborate staging of the dance numbers far more than it does from the dancing itself.
This may have been because director-choreographer Rob Marshall was dealing with stars who were not trained dancers but could shrug a shoulder or do a leg kick in a series of isolated movements. These shots were then ingeniously spliced together with others a close-up of a face or gyrating hips to give a flashy sense of continuity. At other times, dancing was juxtaposed with something from the story line, an inspired way to switch the scenes from the tawdry heroine's fevered imagination to reality.
I suspect it also springs from a failure of choreographic imagination. If you eliminate the ingenious editing (or "Razzle-dazzle 'em" of which Richard Gere boasts as a way to wiggle out of a tight situation such as a murder rap), the dance movements themselves are pretty thin gruel.
Catherine Zeta-Jones, with her musical-comedy background, is the most experienced dancer in the film, and she is given the most to do, in a number in which she tries to persuade Renee Zellweger, as the putative heroine, Roxie, that they would make a great sister act. Miss Zeta-Jones dances hard, and for a change, the camera seldom cuts away from her.
"Chicago" is a hard-boiled story of women no better than they should be who turn to murder, where the resulting notoriety can be transformed into stardom, or at least a nightclub gig.
In the midst of this misanthropic tale is one guileless human being, Roxie's sad-sack, trusting husband, played by John C. Reilly. Always in the background, he has one moment in the spotlight. In makeup that is a reminder of Emil Jannings, whose degradation led him to crow like a rooster in "Blue Angel," Mr. Reilly does a poignant vaudeville turn as he sings and dances "Cellophane Man." In this offbeat moment, dance adds a wordless eloquence to the scene.
For the two stars, Mr. Gere and Miss Zellweger, however, I spent much of my time wondering if it was their voices I was hearing in song and whether some of their dancing also might have been dubbed for instance, a long-shot cartwheel of hers or his stylish dancing, with his back to us, and close-ups of his feet doing complicated Spanish-style beats.
When elaborate cross-cuts lead to such doubts about authenticity, the willing suspension of disbelief a cornerstone of the theatrical experience is out the window.
Even with the disappointment of mediocre choreography, there are elements to admire. The costumes and settings are invariably apt, and the staging is bold. The design and lighting of a number like the prison scene, with a double row of sexy women silhouetted in cages high above the action, are vivid.
There is a long, handsomely staged sequence for Miss Zellweger, dressed in shimmering sequins. It includes some patter, a seductive strut and a striking shot of her a small figure on the upper-right-hand side of the screen, with a vast shiny blackness filling the rest of the space. The set suddenly fills with mirrors, multiplying her impact.
Whatever his talents as a dancer, Mr. Gere inhabits the role of the flamboyant criminal lawyer, Billy Flynn he has the gestures, the timing and the chutzpah to carry it off with style and flair.
Hollywood may have found there was not an audience for musical comedy, but I am not aware of any first-rate musicals that have failed to find an audience. When was the last time Hollywood delivered a "Singin' in the Rain" or "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" or "West Side Story"? It is hard to believe that that level of dancing would not be captivating at any time.
A wealth of dancing talent exists today and choreographic talent to boot. A good example is the recent Broadway success of the Twyla Tharp-Billy Joel musical, "Movin' Out." The choreography has moments of soaring inspiration, and in its protagonist, John Selya, it has a genuine new star. He may not be a household name, but he has the passion, the drive and the appeal to bring luster to a dancing role. Miss Tharp's choreography for him is full of wit, excitement and invention.
Looking further back at what most dance lovers consider the greatest dance movies of all time, there is the incomparable work of Fred Astaire, who in his dancing with Ginger Rogers during the 1930s not only displayed awesome talent, but also acquired the power to insist that his dances be filmed just the way he wanted.
What he wanted is as far removed from the world of "Chicago" as could be.
He wanted his dances photographed in a single shot, no matter how many takes it took to get it right.
To do this, he had a special dolly designed for him (it was dubbed the "Astaire dolly"), with the camera mounted on it two feet off the ground. Riding on it were two cameramen, and the whole contraption was pushed around by the head grip, who kept the dolly moving in sync with the dancers in a wild choreographic sequence of its own.
The resulting dances have no equal. The pressure of performing them in a single take gave them a compelling dramatic tension and left audiences feeling they were present at the creation. What came out on film was dancing perfection.
Contrast that with the closing number in "Chicago." It's a feel-good fireworks display of sassy dancing by Miss Zellweger and Miss Zeta-Jones. Again, the editing technique makes it all happen: In a blaze of swift, zinging images, some cuts are just one or two seconds long. The longest is eight to 10 seconds, and they're all spliced together into a giddy, larger-than-life celebratory finale.
It's hardly what dance is capable of, but it sure packs a superficial wallop. Maybe that will be enough for the Oscars.

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