When Chicago first came to DVD a few years ago, the lack of a full-blown 2-disc SE presentation was sorely missed. Allow me the pleasure of telling you that this latest Razzle-Dazzle edition rectifies any Chicago-SE deficit you have been forced to endure. Enjoy…
It’s sexy. It’s sultry. It’s gritty. It’s infused with energy. It’s confident. It’s Dazzling.
Rob Marshall took the challenge of adapting Bob Fosse’s broadway musical “Chicago” for the screen. In doing so he achieved something even greater than his goal. Rather than just “adapt” or “interpret” Fosse’s stage production for a cinematic medium, Marshall got down inside the musical’s soul and expressed it through film. This distinction may sound semantic, but the results are profound. Rather than “retrofitting” the theater show into a movie format (the usual approach of other movie-musicals), this “expressing” makes Chicago a movie-musical that looks and feels authentically like a it was written from the ground up to be seen just the way it appears here on film. Marshall’s Chicago is one of the few “movie-musical adaptations” that feels better than the original stage production…as though the stage production was a dress rehearsal of sorts and the film is the fully-developed work. None of this suggests that there is anything lacking in Fosse’s original theatrical direction…I only mean to point to Marshall’s genius at being able to “live out” Fosse’s true vision for the musical on the big screen in a way that takes it further…like an instrument that’s been more finely tuned so that all the resonances now vibrate together in perfect pitch.
Chicago is a masterpiece of film-making. Comprising the talents and labors of hundreds of gifted individuals, no one would deny that Bob Marshall’s vision and direction are Chicago’s key ingredients to success. The bonus material on this Special Edition is full of information that helps to illuminate the particulars that came together so splendidly in the making of this film. But Aside from the usual criteria that every film depends on like good writing, directing, and excellent casting and acting, Chicago was well served by Marshall’s genius at how to handle “the songs”. You see, most traditional musicals (whether on stage or on film) integrate the musical numbers by “pulling them into” to real-world situations the characters live in. Example…One nun asks where Maria is. Another nun answers by singing a song set to accompanying music that appears out of thin air. While it’s not very realistic, the effect is still charming as this is what we know and love to be the traditional musical genre. It’s worth mentioning here that Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge” is a “traditional” musical by this definition.
However, Marshall wanted something different for Chicago. He didn’t want to jar modern audiences with the discomfort of musical numbers intruding (something that Baz Luhrmann avoided by making Moulin Rouge very surreal in cinematic style). I suspect that Marshall got a bit of inspiration by Fosse's direction of the movie-musical Cabaret where Fosse created a believable context for each musical number by putting the songs “on stage” within the film…not once did he let a song escape this rule to “break the reality” of context within the film (Fosse even cut a few songs that couldn’t be easily adapted to a “stage” performance). But this wouldn’t work so easily for Marshall's filming of Chicago, because while some songs could easily take place on stage to avoid breaking the film’s real-world context (like the opening and closing numbers “All That Jazz” and “Nowadays”), most of the songs were too bound to story events to make the leap. Marshall’s brilliance was to express these other musical numbers in a context of fantasy…leaving the “real world” of the film’s story completely untouched. The result is nothing short of genius. The film flows effortlessly as the two worlds…fantasy and reality…interpose and weave together in a dance of perfect balance. Cell Block Tango, We Both Reached For The Gun, and Razzle Dazzle are three of the best song/dance-performances I’ve ever seen on film.
Comparison to the original single-disc DVD edition:
I know what all of you are wondering. Does this new DVD edition look better? Worse? The same as the single-disc version you already bought? I’ve spent quite a bit of time switching back and forth trying to A/B compare the two to determine just that. It’s not easy…have to use the same DVD player because at 106 inches (diagonal) differences between DVD players (or input calibrations) can introduce visible differences that could lead to false conclusions. So after hours of disc loading/unloading...having other people load the discs so I’m not biased as to what to expect…my final conclusion is that the new disc may be slightly better compressed…with perhaps cleaner backgrounds and a hair less noise…but as soon as I’d find myself saying “oh yeah, that scene definitely looks better on the new disc” I’d pop in the old disc and find myself struggling to tell the two apart. Personally, I think that overall this is good news. My impression of the video is quite favorable, and I’m thrilled to see that the inclusion of all the goodies on this new set, at the very least, haven’t had a negative impact on the image presentation.
Impression of the Video…
Beautiful. Chicago is one of Miramax’s “better” live-action DVD presentations, and manages to keep free from the usual blight of high-frequency filtering and excessive edge enhancement that mars so many other magnificent films in their DVD library. My viewing equipment has improved a great deal since reviewing the original DVD release, and I’m thrilled to see just how much “better” this DVD (both the new and the original) look merely as a consequence of my improved playback system. Aside from my 720P DLP projector (BenQ 8700+), which bests my friend’s old Sony 10HT (used for the last review), my new Oppo DVD player brings an HTPC-level of image purity and resolution to DVDs that has to be seen to be appreciated. On this new system I’m delighted to discover that the “edge enhancement” that I noticed a few too many times during my last review has diminished greatly, and is now only marginally evident in one or two scenes (like the halo above Richard Gere’s Top Hat in “We Both Reached For The Gun”) and is hardly cause for alarm (though it does lead one to wonder how much better the image could have looked with a tad more detail and a tad less electronic boosting).
Additionally, the level of natural image detail coming through this DVD is breathtakingly satisfying. Fine-object detail is strong and mid and far-ground faces maintain a reasonable level of definition helping to keep this DVD’s image bordering on “film like”. Contrast and Black level are without fault, and shadow detail is outstanding which well-serves this movie given its many dimly-lit numbers. Compression noise is minimal for the most part and I’m astonished at how smooth many of the more challenging scenes (like Cell Block Tango) come through. At times I did notice what looked to be a slight bit of “noise” in dark blue backgrounds, an I did see some color banding in a few scenes where the light-beam from a stage spot-light wasn’t able to maintain a smooth gradation from light to dark from its brightest center to the foggy edge. But again I want to stress how minimal these instances of artifacting appeared to my eyes…minimal both in terms of frequency and severity.
If I haven’t managed to convince you yet, let me assure you that having viewed this film at about a 1.5 screen-width distance in the theater during its original theatrical run, I can assure you that this is one of those rare cases where the image quality of the projected DVD far-exceeds the experience of watching the projected 35mm film print (The Lord of the Rings movies were another rare example where I found this to be the case as well). The theatrical prints were very “flat” in appearance, color was dull, and contrast/dynamic range felt disappointingly shy. Also, the level of course film-grain was much greater than what I would have expected the director would have wanted me to see. By contrast, this DVD has much more intense colors, wider contrast range, and much finer film-grain structure than what I saw projected theatrically. The result is that the DVD is much better able to communicate the invigorating visual power of this movie, and I can’t wait for the 1080P Blu-ray version…
Note: There are one or two instances during the DVD where you seen excessive grain structure. Relax…this is in the film-print, and isn’t the fault of shoddy DVD production.
Picture Quality: 4.75 / 5
In the past I think I've been too ambiguous with my scoring or at least haven't applied it consistently from title to title, so I've endeavored to define my rating system more clearly to help make the scoring more meaningful (for all titles reviewed December 2004 and later):
|1-2||An absolute abomination. Hurts to watch. Think "Outland" (scan-line aliasing, chroma noise, dotcrawl)-- truly horrid.|
|2-3||Has some serious problems, but one can at least watch it without getting a headache despite all the problems though you might try to talk your guests into picking a different movie to watch if you have a large projection screen. Think Cold Mountain.|
|3-4||Good or at least "acceptable" on a big-screen, but not winning any awards and definitely room for improvement if you view the image wide-angle (though smaller-screen viewers may be quite content). Think the first extended cut of Fellowship of the Ring...decent picture but still some HF filtering and some edge-halos.|
|4-5||A reference picture that really makes the most of the DVD medium and shows extraordinary transparency to the film-source elements. Non-videophile observers can't help but remark "WOW". Think The Empire Strikes Back or the Fifth Element Superbit (full “5” would be sans EE) or the new Toy Story 10th Anniversary Edition.|
Currently running DVDs on my OPPO DVD player (Faroudja deinterlacing) which scales to 720P, feeding my BenQ 8700+ PJ via DVI, projecting onto a 106” diagonal 16x9 Dalite HiPower screen, viewed from approximately 1.6 screen-widths distance. Well mastered DVDs produce a stunningly film-like image in this scenario, and lesser-mastered material quickly shows its flaws.
Comparison to the original Single Disc DVD:
100% identical (both the DD and DTS English tracks…new disc to old disc). If you already know how Chicago sounds on DVD you may want to skip to the special features to save time.
Dialogue and Foley effects are well recording and sound natural with good tonal balance and frequency response. But what really matters with this film is the recording quality of the musical numbers…and their presentation on this DVD is outstanding. Musical numbers are full-bodied and lush. A wide dynamic range is preserved and frequency response is extended (on both ends). Bass in controlled and highs sound airy and don’t get congested or brittle even during complex musical numbers with lots of choral voices. Surround use tends towards “ambient fill” in the sense that gun shots don’t fly past you and helicopters don’t explode form behind your head, but the use of the 5.1 palette feels appropriate in this mix and compliments, rather than distracts from, the “action” up front. The surround use becomes more involved during musical numbers, many of which seem to envelop the listener (still weighted towards the front) without the gimmicky use of pin-point musical sources emanating from the rear to pull the listener out of the experience.
Allow me to respond a little further on this point to address what I've heard as criticism from some other sources: The mix on this disc sounds stable and solid right-up-front like a stage-musical ought to sound...with plenty of ambient fill to help pull the sound into the room without falling prey to more modern (tasteless) 5.1 mixing styles where instruments are placed around the listener in an unrealistic manner. If you need trumpets blaring at you from behind to be happy when your "5.1" logo lights up on your receiver...you might find that Chicago won't give you everything you're looking for. The rest of you ought to be well pleased.
Chicago is one of those DVDs that really showcases the value of DTS for those with systems able to reveal the differences. Both mixes/codecs sound marvelous on this DVD…have no fear. However the DTS mix sounds a little richer, a little more dynamic, and smoothes out vocals with that last degree of finesse that really gives it the “refined” audiophile touch. Three-dimensional front/back depth is also noticeably improved on the DTS presentation which paints an aural picture with much more depth and clearly defined imaging. Voices and instruments also have a tad more tonal realism on the DTS track making it sound more “real” to my ears. One thing I did note is that sometimes dialoge and vocals sound a bit more recessed in the DTS mix than on the DD…and my guess is that this is a classic case of “identical mixes” being used for both codecs (I believe this was confirmed when I reviewed that last DVD…I’ll have to double check) with the Dolby Digital mix employing dialogue normalization which, IMO, is a “feature” that never should have been invented.
It’s the subtle—but meaningful—differences, like those heard between these two audio presentations, that really have me excited to hear what may be in store with high-resolution/lossless audio options on our future high-def media.
Sound Quality: 5 / 5
Folks. The pay-off is big-time with the bonus material on this new Razzle Dazzle Special Edition. It’s rare that I get as excited by watching the bonus material on a DVD as I do by watching the feature film. In the case of this new Chicago 2-disc SE…I *could not stop* watching the bonus material. It was a very, very late night!
The only item “missing” from the original DVD is the behind-the-scenes featurette. However, the same content from that featurette (plus much more) appears throughout the many new items on this 2-disc SE and in much better form, so in the end nothing has been lost—rest easy.
- [*]Feature Commentary by Director Rob Marshall and Screenwriter Bill Condon:This is the same outstanding screen-specific commentary found on the original DVD. Marshal and Condon go into depth and dig out fascinating details about decision on how to adapt the story for the screen, casting, staging, dance numbers, everything a fan would hope to find is here. And these gentlemen aren’t shy with words, so you’re treated to a wealth of information that barely manages to fit into the space provided; the way they continue commenting long into the credits is a testament to how earnest their desire is to talk about their wonderful film.
[*]Deleted Musical Number “Class”:Also featured on the original DVD, this bonus item introduces us to a deleted musical number with optional commentary by Director Bob Marshall. The presentation is 4x3 letterbox and the audio is 2.0 Dolby Digital…both sad technical facts for an otherwise worthy “deleted scene”. Personally, I’m glad this scene was cut from the final film as it tends to drag a bit and lacks the “razzle dazzle” of the other musical numbers without substituting another compelling emotion in its place.
[*]From Stage to Screen: The History of Chicago (27 mins):This outstanding documentary is the first “new” item you may encounter on this 2-disc SE that really sets the stage for what’s been added. All the key players (director, writer, producer, and more) contribute to this well edited feature that really adds to the viewer’s understanding and appreciation of this film. They also help illustrate how challenges that seem unassailable by some are often the very grounds for artistic success for others.
- [*]An Intimate Look at Director Rob Marshall (19 mins):Marshall is a gentleman with class. His artistic and professional success have not resulted in an attitude of arrogance and it’s a delight to hear those who work closely with him (from both above and below) offer such gracious praise of his vision, talent, and kind-hearted ability to work respectfully and collaboratively with others. This combination of ability and graciousness is the very model for good leadership and it’s assuring to see someone so deserving get the praise that they are due.
[*]Extended Musical Performances:This is a feature not to be missed. Every musical number (so it seems) from the film is presented here in explicated form. Finished scenes from the feature film are inter-cut with on-set video recordings of cast rehearsals and various film-takes and angles. The marketing text touts “multi angle” and what this really means is “picture in picture”…or rather 3 small image areas on the screen each showing a particular angle of the shot (this effect is only employed on occasion, most of the musical numbers are single-shot and fill the frame). This feature is absolutely outstanding, and my only real criticism is that the video is 4x3 encoded and the audio is only 2.0. I’d much rather have had 16x9 encoded video and allowed the widescreen feature-film content to fill the 16x9 frame with the video-recorded cast rehearsals then narrow down to a pillar-boxed presentation (rather than the other way around…4x3 full-frame video content with then even smaller letterboxed feature-film content).
[*]When Liza Minnelli Became Roxie Hart (13 mins):You’ll discover (if you didn’t know already…I didn’t) that during the musical’s original stage-run, Gwen Verdon took ill and was unable to perform Roxie Hart for several weeks and the understudy was unable to take her place. Bob Fosse feared that this mishap would guarantee the failure of the show as it had been receiving mixed reviews and losing his lead might destine the show to be taken off circuit. When Liza heard this (Fosse had helped to make her a success by giving her star performances in his previous productions) she offered to fill in temporarily for Roxie’s role and without accepting any official credit for the work (each night a verbal announcement was made immediately prior to the performance that Liza would be substituting for the role…no printed material every made mention). Liza had only five days to completely learn her part, and she did it. In doing this, Liza Minnelli rescued the show from dropping off the charts as word began to spread of her performing Roxie’s part, and when she finally turned the role back to the scripted lead, Chicago had been forever put on the map.
[*]Chita Rivera’s Encore (5 mins):The actress who played Velma in the original stage production returns to the set for a brief cameo in the Bob Marshall film. Short but sweet.
[*]VH1 Behind the Movie (35 mins):This “promotional” documentary resembles the behind-the-scenes featurette from the original DVD but has a more classy feel. More great material here, though much of this feature is also repeated in other bonus items (there is a degree of overlap between the various featurettes, but they still manage to hold interest).
[*]Costume Designer Colleen Atwood (7 mins):It’s nice to see creative talent that don’t normally get featured on “bonus material” getting a chance to step into the spot light and talk about what they do. Colleen is responsible for the OUTSTANDING costume design seen in the film, and it’s a privilege to spend a few minutes with her here.
[*]Production Designer John Myhre (6 mins):As with Colleen Atwood, this is a great opportunity for another “invisible” artist to come out from the shadows of movie-making and talk about what he does. Myhre is responsible for designing the reproduction jazz club/performance theater, among his other many production accomplishments in this film. His work is truly gifted…so much so that many of the “sets” he produced looked and felt so authentic in the film that I was convinced that filming had taken place on-location in historic venues.
The Chicago Special Edition you’ve been waiting for is here. Audio and video quality appears to me to match the same level of excellence of the previous single-disc edition, and bonus material is extensive, comprehensive, engaging, and has real re-watch potential. Despite the fact that we can all agree that this SE edition is the DVD that "should have been" for sale initially way-back-when, I can honestly say to fans of this film that the double-dip is worth it. If you haven’t yet purchased the original DVD (either haven’t seen the film or were holding out for a future 2-disc SE) then the recommendation is even easier.