The last gasp of the fairy tale is often the musical. There’s a hero, and heroine and a bad guy that’s trying to ruin the day so hey kids lets put on the show right here in this cornfield with the dancing milkman. This is the reason musicals are generally despised by most people, but there are a few musicals that transcend the general air of unreality and wholesome goodness. Cabaret is one. A musical that has only the music that people that are musicians make, and not bursting into song at every opportunity.
Of course it should be mentioned that the characters in Cabaret have little to sing about. Set in the last days of the Weimar Republic in Pre-Hitler Germany and based on the writings of Christopher Isherwood (some of the material previously filmed as ‘I Am a Camera’), the setting is one of ‘divine decadence’ and fearful hatred in the shape of rising fascism in the Nazi’s. Into this backdrop we are introduced to shy British scholar Brian Roberts (Michael York) and flighty nightclub singer Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli). She works in the Kit-Kat club, where as announced by the slightly sinister and mocking M.C (Joel Grey) ‘Life is disappointing? Forget it! In here life is beautiful’. Of course as the story progresses we realise that he is 100% correct, and that the Kit-Kat Klub, while sordid and tawdry is possibly the most forgiving and moral place left in Germany.
The story is, at a basic level, about the relationship that develops between Sally and Brian and how it is really, like the Klub, more superficial than substance, pretence to block out unpleasant reality. Brian admits to Sally that he doesn’t really know if he likes girls but as the one sympathetic person she knows, she pursues a complicated relationship with him anyway, trying to revel in his warmth and stability. This charade however begins to fold as they fall in with a wealthy Barron who wines, dines and seduces them both…
‘So do I!’
When this film was released in 1972 this sort of a revelation, still proved shocking, and much has been made of one of the leading characters being bi-sexual. But as Sally is more boyish than most of the other women (he earlier reveals to Sally that he has slept with 3 different women, but all encounters had gone badly), it could be that Brian is Gay or simply A-Sexual. In the end, although much is made of it, I don’t believe it is important to the relationship of them both. If the Barron had been a Baroness the narrative would have remained the same.
The supporting roles in the film are also of great quality with the character of Fritz (a wannabe gigolo) and Nathalie (a rich Jewish heiress) complimenting Sally and Brian still further, and as they and their relationship start as the comic relief, they end with a darker and more gloomy future than we really want to think about. The other main player is the M.C. Used as Shakespeare used the Fool in King Lear, he comments on highlights the themes of the film in song with ‘Two Ladies’, ‘Money makes the World go Around’, and ‘If You Could See Her Through My Eyes’ being perfect examples of this. He never speaks except on stage and is perfectly theatrical. His dislike of the Nazis is far more pointed and biting than Brian’s, and more subtle but ultimately safer and more insidious in its effectiveness.
The music and dance numbers in the film are cleverly staged and always entertaining. Unlike a lot of musicals they last for the right length and don’t make us want to shout ‘get on with it!’ They are stagy, rather than showy and this adds well to the air of sleaze and cheapness that the club has. The one musical number preformed outside of the Klub ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’ which starts as a folk song by a ruddy German boy scout, and ends as a rousing, hymn to Nazism, is chilling and with the benefit of hindsight (the song is sometimes used by the far right as a rally song) sends a pang of fear into the heart with its happy hatred that illustrates vividly how easily and cleverly the Nazis came to power at such a turbulent time.
At this point you cant go any further without mentioning Liza Minnelli and her performance as Sally. Simply put, she IS Sally Bowles and this role seems as close and amalgamation between herself and her mother (who had died of ‘pills and booze’ herself only a few years earlier) as it is possible to get. Sally herself states that one day she will be a great actress ‘if sex and booze don’t get me first’ Sadly, they did and she never had a role that showcased her talents so well again. She won her only Oscar for the part and will probably be remembered for the bowler hat and eyelashes as well as Judy Garland was for the Ruby slippers and braids. Also winning an Oscar was Joel Grey, who reprised his role from the stage show and again just seemed to become the M.C (both acting Oscars won by actors who didn’t seem like they were acting although playing wildly OTT) and carries the film past its story of a tragic love affair into something far deeper and more sinister. Michael York (I truly believe that for about 5 years in the late 60’s early 70’s this man was in every film made) is also very good, although his role is (as usual) more reactive than pro-active he acquits himself very well and it is to his credit that he rarely gets pushed to the background or ignored.
Sound and Picture
This DVD is supposedly the 25th Anniversary edition and the only things I can really say about the sound and picture is that they are bad. The Sound is really flat and never sounds half as good as it ought to for a film that isn’t that old and a musical that really needs the addition of good sound. Like wise the picture, although not unwatchable or really, really terrible, it is often fuzzy and grainy. Of course the real travesty is that there is no anamorphic picture and for a film that has such a lot going on visually this is almost a crime. This is one time when I hope that there is a far superior version released for the next big anniversary, although of course, they should have tried a lot harder on this version
At first glance there does seem to be a lot of extras on this DVD, with 2 documentaries, production notes, a original trailer and ‘The Kit-Kat Klub Memory gallery’ all included. Unfortunately, these are not as comprehensive as they could have been. The new documentary ‘Cabaret: A Legend in the Making’ could have been a lot longer and far more in depth, and although retrospective, feels almost like a promotional puff piece. The 1972 documentary ‘The Re-creation of an Era’ is almost unintentionally funny, with that serious 70’s voiceover that tries to make every movie into Chekhov, but it does contain some interesting footage of Bob Fosse directing. The trailer unfortunately has the same terrible voice over but is good for its nostalgia value. The memory gallery is just a selection of short memories or sound bites from all the main people involved that would have been far better used as part of the documentary. The packaging is also very misleading and says that the special features are on the other side of the disc; incorrectly labelling this DVD 2 sided.
Cabaret is a dark musical that sits well even 25 years later. Like Moulin Rouge it realises that music and dance, like life is not always bright and shining. While the disc is far below standard, it can be picked up quite cheaply from a lot of suppliers and is well worth a look.