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Over the past half-century, the movie musical, one of the American cinema’s glories, has become nearly extinct. There are many reasons for its decline. When the Hollywood studio system collapsed, in the late ’50s, filmmakers no longer had the resources to create such lavish, stylized productions or to develop talents to succeed Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, and other great song-and-dance stars. Established writers, composers, choreographers, and directors were swept aside by the rock revolution, the expression of a rebellious younger generation. Increasingly, musicals created for the screen—Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon, Funny Face—were abandoned in favor of pre-sold adaptations of Broadway hits. Several of these, notably The Music Man, My Fair Lady, and Oliver!, survived the transition from theater to cinema, but many others were crushed by bloated productions and performers whose singing and dancing talents were, at best, rudimentary. By 1969, when Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin were recruited to croon in Paint Your Wagon, fans of movie musicals knew the end was near.

The last three decades have yielded only a handful of commercially successful screen musicals (most prominently Cabaret and Grease), and the rare attempts to employ song and dance in cinematically innovative ways (the vastly underrated One From the Heart and Pennies From Heaven) were dismissed by most reviewers and ignored by the public. In recent years, about the best we could hope for has been animated movies with original scores (Beauty and the Beast, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut) or occasional musical numbers interpolated into dramatic films: Michelle Pfeiffer’s smoldering set piece “Makin’ Whoopee” in The Fabulous Baker Boys, Jeremy Northam’s urbane versions of Ivor Novello chestnuts in Gosford Park. (And, no, I haven’t forgotten 2001’s spectacular but headache-inducing Moulin Rouge!, with its harebrained plot and hand-me-down score, or Lars von Trier’s ambitious but grotesquely misconceived Dancer in the Dark.)

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All of which makes Chicago, Broadway director and choreographer Rob Marshall’s feature debut, arguably the most surprising American movie of the past year. A landmark screen musical, it infuses the genre with energy, imagination, and caustic wit.

The film arrives trailing a long theatrical history. Its first incarnation, staged in 1926, was a fast-talking, unsentimental newspaper comedy by Illinois court reporter Maurine Watkins. The following year, the play was adapted as a silent movie, and, in 1942, it served as the basis for William Wellman’s cult classic Roxie Hart. In 1975, director Bob Fosse, with the help of composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb, transformed Chicago into a Broadway musical showcasing Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera as murderous floozy rivals with showbiz aspirations. As he did in the screen version of Cabaret, Fosse emphasized the darker aspects of the material: the venality of his protagonists, the corruption of the legal system, and the public’s insatiable appetite for sensationalism.

Screenwriter Bill Condon, who wrote and directed Gods and Monsters, has structured the latest version of Chicago as a neo-Brechtian pageant, an immorality play that interweaves tawdry realism with its characters’ glitzy, self-justifying fantasies. We’re shown jazz-loving Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly both as what they are—sluttish, conscienceless killers—and as they regard themselves: glamorous heroines worthy of public adulation. Chicago is a saucily scabrous, gleefully heartless comedy that rubs our noses in man’s inhumanity.

Marshall knows that audiences of the post-MTV era lack the patience to accept a narrative that stalls every 10 minutes to accommodate musical sequences. His solution to this problem is to integrate exposition with production numbers in a seamless whole. Propelled by Martin Walsh’s quicksilver editing, Chicago zooms along, challenging viewers to keep pace with its cynical saga of publicity-hungry murderesses exploiting tabloid notoriety to warble and hoof their way to stardom.

Over the years, attempts have been made to film Chicago as a vehicle for, among others, Liza Minnelli, Goldie Hawn, and Madonna. Initially, Marshall’s casting of Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Richard Gere raised eyebrows. How could these actors, known primarily for dramatic roles, fulfill the daunting vocal and terpsichorean demands of a piece of musical theater? With unexpected finesse, as it turns out. Voluptuous Zeta-Jones, who began her career in West End musicals, is a knockout, masterfully executing her song-and-dance numbers and brassily reveling in Velma’s wanton ruthlessness. Gere matches her step for step and note for note as money-grubbing shyster Billy Flynn, who manipulates his clients, juries, and journalists alike with Machiavellian cunning.

Although appealingly spunky, top-billed Zellweger runs a distant third. Evoking, at various points, memories of Marilyn Monroe, Gloria Grahame, Shirley MacLaine, and even Shirley Temple, Zellweger can’t quite get a handle on Roxie’s irascible, ingenuous character. Her singing and dancing are competent, but, like Madonna’s in Evita, they are plainly the results of hard work rather than inspiration. (The closing credits assert that all three leads performed their own musical numbers, but several obfuscating long shots in dance sequences suggest that doubles might have been used to execute especially tricky choreography.)

The note-perfect supporting cast features scene-stealing John C. Reilly as Roxie’s doofus husband, Amos, who delivers his self-deprecating “Mr. Cellophane,” to touching effect, and Queen Latifah as the opportunistic, hard-boiled prison matron Mama Morton, who socks home “When You’re Good to Mama” while exhibiting her Grand Canyon cleavage in a Bessie Smith-worthy gown. In smaller, nonsinging roles, Christine Baranski plays a shrewd sob sister, Lucy Liu has a cameo as a high-society triple murderess, and—if you don’t blink—Chita Rivera, Broadway’s original Velma, portrays a long-in-the tooth jailbird.

Judged in isolation, Kander and Ebb’s music isn’t particularly impressive. Indeed, none of their compositions have enjoyed much currency apart from Chicago. Paradoxically, this demonstrates the strength of their contribution: Their evocations of the show’s Jazz Age setting—pastiches of vaudeville routines, rags, Charlestons, tangos, and soft-shoe numbers—were never meant to stand alone. These hard-sell period showstoppers, all performed in medium to quick tempos, are the rhythmic engine that drives this hurtling, tongue-in-cheek movie.

Musicals demand more of directors than any other genre. Filmmakers must be sufficiently knowledgeable to integrate a broad spectrum of expressive elements: song, dance, dialogue, color, decor, and camera movement. Marshall’s sure hand is evident everywhere, especially in the nimble conflation of his dramatic scenes, in which the characters address each other, and the sexy, Fosse-influenced musical sequences, which are delivered directly to the camera. To compensate for what appears to be a relatively tight budget, he uses resourceful, eye-catching stratagems: mirrored sets, neon lights, and superimpositions. Marshall’s vision is abetted by a crackerjack production team including set designer John Myhre, costume designer Colleen Atwood, and cinematographer Dion Beebe, all of whom employ dingier hues than the bold colors one customarily finds in musicals, depicting a milieu whose flashiness fails to mask its underlying decadence.

Above all, Chicago respects its audience’s intelligence. It takes for granted that we, unlike its sleazy but perversely compelling characters, are undeceived by courtroom chicanery and yellow journalism. Rather than moralizing, the movie merrily spoofs the showbiz flummery that infests mass-media discourse. The result is a grown-up entertainment that never flags, from the bracing opening number all the way through Zeta-Jones and Zellweger’s climactic razzle-dazzle duet. CP