CHICAGO – ‘Cell Block Tango’ (2002)

Every six months or so I become absolutely infatuated with a filmed musical number and will endlessly play it on repeat for days. Prior offenders include: JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR’s ’Superstar’, CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND’s ‘You Stupid Bitch’, just about any song from JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS, LIZZIE’s ‘House of Borden’, SWEET CHARITY’s ‘The Aloof/The Heavyweight/The Big Finish’, and even The View’s performance of the Broadway adaptation of FROZEN’s ‘Let It Go’.

Right now, it’s CHICAGO’s ‘Cell Block Tango’, a number from a film that I saw when it first ran in theaters, groused about how it swept the Oscars that year, and now I won’t shut up about.

To be fair, I watched it before I really started to understand musicals and accept them for what they are, instead of finding them to be overly dramatic venues for big showtunes and elaborate dance scenes.

Please understand that I’m (mostly) only discussing the ‘Cell Block Tango’ here, not the film at large because, otherwise, this piece would run at least four thousand words. (Trust me, I’ll spill the rest of those words some day, especially concerning the backstory of the play!)

One last matter worth noting: I moved to Chicago — the city, not the musical — right around the time of the theatrical revival, several years before the release of the film adaptation. So, well beforehand, I had already soaked in the look and feel of the revival’s fishnet-adorned El stop ads and billboards.

And with that, I’ll say that, twenty years later, this piece is better than ever. I was deadly wrong about dismissing it.

Taken out of context, it plays like a fever dream, a blurring of fact-and-fiction, of glamor fantasy and hardened reality, and I love it.

Women scorned, unafraid to exact vengeance. Legs as shotguns; wrists as daggers.

The secret weapon here is Catherine Zeta-Jones, who most folks at the time wrote off as a pair of versatile hips for Sean Connery, but reveals herself as one hell of a torch singer, while also throwing herself at you with a fire in her eyes.

This is a musical adaptation that a lot of folks complain about because it breaks the mould of film musicals; it relies on a lot of rapid shots and whiplash choreography, but that’s a good thing! CHICAGO (2002) is all about punc-u-a-tion and what better way to emphasize that than scissor legs and quick cuts? It’s all about the kinetic movement, even utilizing some frame-skipping to give it extra POP, and it turns CHICAGO from a leering stage production into immensely compelling cinema.

This is seven minutes of tales of abuse, anger, and unrepentant payback, tales told from a century ago via the original author Maurine Dallas Watkins, but are also a tale as old as time.

“Then he ran into my knife. He ran into my knife TEN TIMES.”

I could go on about the work’s fidelity to Fosse and his faceless, mute men, fetish wear and so on, but really, the piece speaks for itself. Go ahead, listen, and watch, and don’t disregard it like I did before:

Lastly, the entire history of this film’s production is astounding, and it’s all detailed here. Trust me, read it — you will not be disappointed.