“All you need to make a movie,” the filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard once said, “is a girl and a gun.” While guns—anatomical and otherwise—are the props used to propel much of Chicago’s plot, they’re secondary to the girl part of Godard’s dictum. Set, mainly, in the women’s ward of the Cook County Jail in Chicago in 1926, the film, along with its progenitor, Bob Fosse’s musical of 1975, has a largely female cast that makes clear what the play on which both were based and the two nonmusical films that preceded them did not: that Chicago is, among other things, a powerful examination of female rage and a demonstration of blackness as a corrupting style. There’s the rage of one “jazz baby” murderess, Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger in the movie), who has a craving to be a celebrity. There’s the rage her archrival—another murderess, the vaudeville star Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones)—feels once Roxie’s celebrity begins to eclipse her own. And then there’s the rage of the other incarcerated women—all candidates for classes in anger management—who share the jail-stage with Roxie and Velma. They may have killed a man or two once or twice, but they shouldn’t be locked up for it, since their victims “had it comin’.” So the women sing in one of the film’s brilliantly performed numbers, “Cell Block Tango.” (“He took a flower/In its prime/And then he used it/And he abused it/It was a murder/But not a crime!”)
All that rage shows itself in fairly direct cinematic ways in the beginning of the film before Roxie goes to jail: murder, mayhem, melodramatic plot points. In the first scenes, Roxie is betrayed by her lover, Fred Casely (Dominic West), a furniture salesman who claims to have connections in show business. More than anything, Roxie wants to be a star. But when Fred spurns Roxie with the truth—he has no connections, he lied to her to get her into bed—Roxie, her kimono flying, reaches for a gun conveniently kept in her bureau drawer and blows Fred away. He had it comin’.
But what elevates the film—what makes it so artful—is the emphasis of its director, Rob Marshall, on the chilly narcissism at the non-hearts of his women, projecting—with their black helmets of hair or processed finger-waves; their rolled stockings and dresses with dropped waists; their rouged lips, cheeks, and eyelids—a “don’t care-ish” attitude. And that style informs their behavior. It is a black style—loose and funky—which grew out of jazz and its love of the low-down, and which enables the actresses to adapt their movements to something like those of the Negress that Zora Neale Hurston described in her essay “Characteristics of Negro Expression” (1934):
Everything is acted out. Unconsciously for the most part of course. There is an impromptu ceremony always ready for every hour of life. No little moment passes unadorned….
A Negro girl strolls past the…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.