Friday, October 30, 2009

Great Musical Moments: Chicago: The Cell Block Tango

As a 14 year old, “Chicago” was the first (non-animated) musical I had ever seen from start to finish and it marked the beginning of what now appears to be a life long affair with Musicals. However, even more generally, I believe that “Chicago” as a movie was probably one of the most important movie events in Hollywood in the last 20 years or so. Thanks to the sassy performances of its sparkling leads, Zeta-Jones and Zellweger, and Rob Marshall’s confident direction, the movie was a gigantic success and almost single-handedly resurrected the Musicals genre in Hollywood. Unlike “Moulin Rouge” (which was released a year before in 2001) it was a better motion picture and enjoyed greater financial success and accolades. It presented the Musical as a much more attractive financial proposition than it was seen previously. It proved once again that musicals aren’t restricted to a tween audience in animated features (a la Lion King, Aladdin etc.) or “wholesome family entertainmeners” like “The Sound of Music” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” It can be just as gritty, biting and adult as any solid drama or black comedy. This was proven by Bob Fosse way back in the 1970s with musicals like “Chicago” and “Cabaret” inter alia. However, musicals practically died out by the late 1980s. A new form of music movies emerged headed by successful films like “Flashdance,” “Footloose” and “Dirty Dancing” which weren’t really musicals as much as they were dance movies. A number of musicals went kaput like “Xanadu” and “Wizard of Oz” (taking the acting careers of those involved, Diana Ross and Olivia Newton John most prominently, with them). Consequently, musicals were relegated to the stage save for the Disney features. However, post “Chicago” a number of musicals were revived for the big screen leading to a number of successful films including “Dreamgirls,” “Mamma Mia” and more.

Now, one of the most iconic moments in the movie is the Cell Block Tango. A grandiose picturisation that is set on a cinematic scale while retaining that stagey feel, it is one of those jaw dropping sequences in the movie, for several reasons. For starters, it is about a bunch of female convicts telling their tales of crime set to a tango. All of them have stories involving love, lies, betrayal and revenge. Some of them are victims, some the vamps and all are bit insane. Their tango is hot and their stories are distubingly amusing. The Cell Block Tango shamelessly celebrates these criminals, their lives and their exploits and we love it for that. The humor is black as coal and has all the bite of a blood-sucking vampire. It represents not only great music and picturisation but a fascinating exploration of several dark (and often taboo) themes which is a sharp departure from previous works on the same. The movie glorifies the villians by pointing out that the lines aren’t as distinct as often made out to be.

What I also loved about this sequence in the film in particular is that it makes the background actors rise above being merely extras. Each of them is given the spotlight, a story to tell and even Zeta-Jones is not given any special preference over the others. They are all equal, at least for this song. And thereafter, whenever you see one of them, you see them as more than just fillers or background vocalists. Each of them has a character to portray which has its own tale, its own distinct personality. Each of them plays a woman who went dramatically against societal norms at a time when ideas like feminism were restricted to the right to franchise. They are each independent, fiery and a reflection of a bygone era. And yet, even today, they shock you. Therein lies the timelessness of Bob Fosse’s work revived here by Rob Marshall most successfully.

To conclude, “Chicago” marked the beginning of a new era. Even if it is not seen so now, it will be without a doubt some day. It revived an old genre with all the style and flair that was most typical of the best works therein. At the same time, it boosted the careers of its actors considerably scoring Oscar gold for Catherine Zeta-Jones (who hid her pregnancy to get the role). But most importantly, it reinvented the old musicals format in various ways, by bringing a stronger cinematic feel to the work and making the transformation from stage to film a much more creative, innovative anbd consequently, worthwhile enterprise. Its financial success only cements my position further. The Cell Block Tango is an excellent example if this; as is the puppeteering sequence in “Oh Yes, They Both Reached for the Gun.” The result not only appealed to the lovers of the stage version but also won over a whole new generation of fans, for both, the movie and the genre. Subsequently, it has been applied for teens in shows like “Glee” and the “High School Musical” franchise. It has resulted in investment of relatively astronomical sums into musicals like “Hairspray” and “Mamma Mia” with phenomenal returns. “Chicago” was the film that started it all. I can’t wait for Rob Marshall’s “Nine” which brings Daniel Day Lewis and a bevy of beauties including Penelope Cruz, Sophia Loren, Nicole Kidman, Kate Hudson, Fergie and Dame Judi Dench together in a musical adaptation of an Italian play inspired by Fellini’s “8 ½”.

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