Being in `Chicago' was music to her ears

Queen Latifah gives film rave reviews

January 04, 2003|By Chris Hewitt | Chris Hewitt,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Queen Latifah can get a Golden Globe nomination with one musical number tied behind her back.

She had to, since one of her big musical numbers in Chicago, which opened Friday and earned her a best supporting actress nomination, was dumped. "Class" is one of the crowd-pleasing numbers in the Broadway show on which Chicago is based, and you can spot the moment when Latifah and Catherine Zeta-Jones are about to sing it, but then the movie cuts away from them.

"We shot it, we shot it," assures Latifah, by phone. "But I guess there were pacing problems. It slowed the movie down, they say. I didn't mind, because once I saw the movie, I thought, `It does move really well, and if it's good for the movie, it's good for me.' So I was OK with it."

Latifah could console herself with the news that her remaining song, "When You're Good to Mama," makes a big impact and that "Class" will appear on the DVD of Chicago. In the movie, Latifah plays Mama, a no-nonsense prison warden who nurtures murderesses Roxie and Velma in the way Fagin could have been said to nurture Oliver Twist.

Not that Latifah needs much consoling. In addition to the award nominations, Chicago is getting rave reviews from critics. And from Latifah.

"It came out even better than I anticipated," Latifah says. "I love this movie. Even the credits - where they make it look like a marquee with a couple of light bulbs missing - are brilliant. When we were making it, I would show up on the set to watch other people do their scenes and, believe me, I never do that."

Latifah gets to show off the fine singing voice she has not often used on her mostly rap-based records (it was also heard in her role as a torch singer in Living Out Loud). Most of the songs in the film are interrupted by dialogue and dramatic scenes, but Latifah says that's no problem for her: "I figured if all I want to do is listen to myself sing, I can put one of my albums on."

She says it was a thrill getting to work with the composers of Chicago, John Kander and Fred Ebb (who also wrote the Cabaret songs). When she was singing, it was their approval she hoped for most.

"This is their baby, and I knew if I had their blessing, I was OK," Latifah says. She got it. "We ran through the songs once or twice, together. They said, `Try this or that.' And I would try it, and it always worked. We only had about five minutes together, it seems like, but that was all we needed."

More than anything, it was the story of Chicago that fascinated Latifah. It's a musical about the bizarre world of celebrity. Set in Chicago during the Depression, it revolves around two killers who become homicide-by-side stars, then see their stardom fade as newer, more compelling killers come along.

Latifah's Mama is the wise observer of the whole, bloodthirsty scene. Which is not so different from today, when a serial killer will still grab headlines faster than a nun.

"I just thought that was really interesting: this idea of wanting to be famous and being willing to kill for it," says Latifah. "It's really not so far-fetched, is it?"

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