I always wondered why some people find it so hard to enjoy musicals either on the stage or on the screen. Such people would have the film director extract the meaning and plot from a musical in order to turn it into a film devoid of dance and song. I have encountered several individuals whose aversion to musical interludes derives from an inability to reconcile singing and dancing with their fixed views of cinematic reality. I’m more interested in how directors choose to intertwine the show tunes with the narratives. I say that getting hung up on whether the characters in musicals realize they're divulging plot in song is as ridiculous as asking if characters in a film notice that there's a guy following them around with a movie camera. There are film directors who endeavor to accommodate those that would ask such nonsensical questions, using creative concepts to justify sudden outbursts of song. In both of his musical films: Chicago, a film about a wannabe vaudeville star, and Nine a movie about a filmmaker in desperate need of inspiration, Rob Marshall portrays the musical interludes as figments of the protagonists’ imaginations in order to make sense of the narrative . Despite having similar concepts, song and story are entwined more successfully in Chicago than in Nine. Whereas musical numbers are seamlessly incorporated into the storyline of Chicago, the musical performances in Nine seem somewhat detached from the narrative.
The opening shot of Chicago, a slow zoom into an extreme close up of Roxie Hart’s eyes makes it clear that the her whimsical perspective drives the plot. With the first scene taking place in a jazz club, Roxie wistfully watches Velma Kelly’s sultry stage performance in her medium close up. As the camera cuts back and forth between Roxie’s longing looks and Velma Kelly’s vaudeville act, the camera’s close proximity to Roxie’s face and her transfixed gaze signify Roxie’s single-minded obsession with the glamor of vaudevillian fame. A hard cut from Velma’s captivating performance to the familiar extreme close up of Roxie’s unblinking eyes proceeds the shot in which Roxie begins to sing “All That Jazz,” literally taking Velma Kelly’s place on stage. This brief demonstration of Roxie’s fantasy reveals Roxie’s desire to be on the stage and sets a precedent for scenes that interweave song and plot throughout the film.
As Guido contemplates how to begin his film, the film studio transforms into a projection of his creative mind. An extreme long shot displays Guido and his cameras facing the silhouette of a set elaborately decorated with stone arches. Symbolizing a moment of inspiration, one of Guido’s favorite actresses (Claudia) appears to him and gives him a kiss, after which the set is no longer dark but gradually filling with color. A warm yellow glow highlights and gives definition to the arches before women adorned in sparkling, seductive costume appear like set pieces in the stage of Guido’s imagination. The majestic traveling shots of the set lit spectacularly with a mesmerizing blue light and the presence of these women juxtaposed with a close up of Guido and his camera signify the evolution of Guido’s creativity. While the image of the camera clearly draws the connection between Guido’s musical fantasies and his filmmaking aspirations, transitions between song and action in later scenes are not as invisible as those in Chicago.
The musical performances in Chicago do not intruded on the dialogue but tend to blend the concept of the stage with the reality of the narrative. The scene that best demonstrates the perfect coexistence of musical performance and plot is the one in which Velma desperately pleads with Roxie to perform on stage with her if they both become acquitted. When Velma Kelly begins her appeal to an indifferent Roxie, a light shines in through the window, resembling a spot light as it follows Velma. The appearance of the “spotlight” in such a non-theatrical space (the prison recreation room) indicates that Roxie believes her current surroundings are a stage and that Velma’s attempts to befriend her are one big act. After Velma notices Roxie’s obvious disinterest, all signs of the recreational room fade into darkness; the spotlight hones in on Velma’s face while her dialogue gradually develops into song. The disembodied voice of the figurative Master of Ceremonies gives a title to Velma’s “Act of Desperation” before her prison garb is exchanged for a more vaudevillian costume and the recreation room is filled with theatrical neon lights. Still sitting neutrally at a table in the center of the room, Roxie becomes audience to Velma’s theatrics. Though Velma and the gloomy rec room have transformed, recognizable elements of the prison remain (like the balcony leading to the inmates’ cells). These familiar elements and Roxie’s position at the table remind the viewer that she and Velma have not left the prison, and that the musical performance is Roxie’s own theatrical interpretation of reality.
Unlike those in Chicago some of the musical performances in Nine appear disjointed from the narrative despite their obvious relation to the plot. Even though “Be Italian” is a powerful, high-energy song that gives insight into Guido’s personality and issues with women, its placement in the scene seems unnatural. Before the number begins Guido recalls when he and a small group of little boys pay the local prostitute, Saraghina to give them a private show on the beach near her hut. The music begins as Saraghina accepts the money, but she neither sings nor speaks at any point and time in Guido’s physical memory; the only time Saraghina speaks is on Guido’s mental “stage.” Whereas Velma Kelly’s words to Roxie led into a song, the lack of dialogue from Saraghina fails to bridge the gap beween the spectacular vocal performance and Guido’s childhood recollection. A shot of Saraghina verbalizing her advice in the memory before the start of the song could have solidified the connection between the two spaces. This would not be necessary if the scene were to merge the location of the main action with Guido’s fictional world instead of maintaining two distinctly separate spaces: the film set and the beach. The contrast between the theatrical space and the realistic memory becomes even more apparent with the noticeable desaturation of Guido’s memory; the vibrant red costumes and dazzling lights seem to clash with the grayscale flashback. The viewer ultimately feels as if the “Be Italian” musical number (like other songs in Nine) is merely inserted but not interwoven with the entire scene. Such scenes in Nine, which lack the seamless combination of action and song, detract from the beauty of the film while also creating an emotional distance between the audience and the characters successfully avoided in Chicago.