Before La La Land mistakenly won the Oscar, Chicago actually won it. It’s a bit of an island as far as musical best picture winners go. The musical to win before it was Oliver in 1968 (the 60s had three musical best pictures). Obviously, there have been no musical winners since it, a trend that could go on for who knows how long.
It’s surprising to me there aren’t more musical movies. Movies and musicals are all about transporting you to some fantastical land far away, about building an emotional and subjective world and transplanting the viewer there. Chicago completes this feat twice over, creating the fictional and complex world of 1930s Chicago, obsessed with murder and crime, and then building in a whole second world: Chicago as Roxie (Renée Zellweger) sees it.
Before diving into the nested world of Roxie’s Chicago, let’s look at Chicago’s Chicago, because it truly is a fantastic exercise in world building, and it informs Roxie’s character tremendously. The Chicago of the film is a dirty place full of spectacle. We see it everywhere – we begin in a packed nightclub with Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) performing one of the only two “real world” songs in the whole film. It’s important that we understand up front that performance, while not as “staged” as Roxie perceives it, is an important part of this world. Everyone is performing: Mama (Queen Latifah) says one thing but acts another way. Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) runs press like a circus, and the press eats it up so they can write sensationalized stories for their readers. It lets us know Roxie’s point of view, while heightened, fits it just fine with this world. She’s not delusional. She’s perceptive.
When I mentioned I had recently rewatched the film, my friend Jack told me Chicago is a “concept musical” – aware of it’s songs and using them in a specific way (as opposed to say, West Side Story or High School Musical, where the characters sing and dance as if it is a normal thing to do, as if they’re just talking). Chicago’s songs exist on some other plane from the rest of the movie, in Roxie’s imagination or maybe the collective imagination of the “performers” of the movie.
It’s a difficult trick, and it’s a challenge I can’t think of any other movie successfully pulling off. Is there another movie where we, the audience, know that we’re seeing something that isn’t grounded within the “reality” of the film? We know, when a song begins, that we’re being transported away from the action of the real world. We flash back to it occasionally, but when a song cues up the subjective world blots out the objective world. Think about Mama’s introduction. What is happening in the objective world? Surely Mama isn’t simply telling Roxie what she is, what her deal is. Assumedly this image of Mama has been cobbled together from what other inmates have told Roxie, how Mama presents herself, little snippets of interactions Roxie catches (we do see a little of this). The song wedges all these bits together and produces the image of Mama that Roxie has created before presenting it to us.
It’s difficult to overstate how neat of a trick this is, and how difficult it is for movies to pull off. Because movies are “from the outside”, unlike books, it’s very hard for us to step “inside” a character’s brain. In movies if we are shown a scene from the perspective of a lying narrator we are likely to take it at face value, because it looks and feels the same as any other scene, and we can’t get “inside” a character’s mind and know we are being shown “their view”. There are ways around it, yes. In a flashback you can reveal the scene “as it actually took place”, view it from a different perspective, etc. But those a) are pretty hokey and b) eat up a lot of time, which is precious in movies. Chicago doesn’t rely on either of those tricks, yet we still know without being told the subjective and objective realities running at concurrently.
Beyond being a neat-o trick it’s incredibly valuable to bring us into Roxie’s head space. We know, without ever being told through dialogue or even strong acting chops, how Roxie views the world. I said earlier the Chicago of Chicago is all about performance, but not everyone sees that or pines after it. Roxie does. It also does some heavy lifting in building sympathy for Roxie. Her morals are pretty horrific throughout the movie, and she never redeems herself. Told without the songs, without her perspective, it’d be hard to care for her and harder to not just downright hate her. But we see the way Roxie sees the world, and here’s the thing: it’s fun. It’s exhilarating. The performances are captivating, and her desire to be part of that world makes sense because we want to be part of that world. We live her fantasy with her. Without ever seeing what she sees, we would know what she wants without ever feeling how good it feels to be in that space, be in that theater on that stage.
Chicago is an excellent musical to begin with and the film is an excellent translation of that musical. It plays with audience perspective in ways that are astounding and unheard of, and uses those things to create a unique emotional experience. People argue La La Land might (might!) cause people to make more quality film musicals, but really if you want to take a hint on immersive fantastical experiences, look to the musical that actually won the Oscar.