It’s Good to Be Bad in Chicago

By Isabel Tejera

The Oscar-winning musical adaptation celebrates scandal, fame, and complex female leads in a timeless yet relevant way.


Murder. Sex. Media scandals. We’ve seen this show before. But throw in not one, but two, complex female anti-heroes — that’s something new. Rob Marshall’s Chicago, 2002’s six-time Academy Award-winning film adaptation of the Broadway musical, manages to combine all that jazz and more.

Set in the 1920s in the middle of Prohibition, Chicago tells the story of bad girls Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger) and Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Roxie’s an aspiring dancer-singer who shoots her lover and convinces her husband (played by John C. Riley) to take the blame; Velma murders her husband and sister after catching them rehearsing a vaudeville act that, let’s just say, wasn’t part of their routine. Both women land in Cook County jail with a death sentence, under the care of the corrupt Matron “Mama” Morton (Queen Latifah), who trades gossip like currency. It’ll take the razzmatazz of high-price attorney Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) to get them off death row.

“I don't like to blow my own horn, but believe me if Jesus Christ had lived in Chicago today ... and if he'd come to me, let's just say things would have turned out differently.”
— Billy Flynn

Roxie and Velma are both manipulative, sly, and morally adrift — and that’s why we love them. These are two women who aren’t afraid to go after what they want, and are willing to use every aspect of the system to their advantage. In fact, every woman in the cast makes an impression. In the musical number, “Cell Block Tango,” each of the “six married murderesses of Cook County Jail” tells her story, inspiring not just sympathy, but admiration. And while the lesson is certainly not to “fire two warning shots” into the guy who pops gum in your face, the song sends a message that, as women, we have agency to take matters into our own hands. We are more than the products of our situations.

“Fake news” might be a recent hot topic, but Chicago, and its satirical commentary on journalism’s use of sensationalism and selective truth to sway opinions was ringing that bell a long time ago. In the film, it’s the media that’s redefining showbiz, and no one knows that better than Billy Flynn. “Razzle Dazzle” is essentially a rundown of Flynn’s technique; in a flashy tux, he tap dances into the minds of the jury, interposed with shots at a burlesque club with lights, glitter, and dancers. His thrills might be cheap and hyperbolic, but his message — that the media is easily manipulated — is clear.

With its catchy tunes, female anti-heroes, and caustic wit, Chicago basks in its flashiness and brings out the burlesque in everyone. You’ll catch yourself making jazz hands next time you think no one’s watching.