On the surface, the 1972 musical smash Cabaret is a tawdy soap opera, a tale of an aggressive woman who slept her way to the middle.
The Oscar-winning film, out this week for the first time on Blu-ray, is so much more than another tuneful confection. It’s a tale streaked with darkness, one predating the condemnation and killing of German Jews. The musical cast aside the bubble gum flavored films of Hollywood’s musical golden age while branding Liza Minnelli as someone no longer eclipsed by mother Judy Garland’s monumental shadow.
We’re deposited in Berlin circa 1931, a time when the country’s moral center is starting to decay while its National Socialist Party is gaining strength. The titular Cabaret let Germans confront their sexual urges from the safety of their seats.
Cabaret performer Sally Bowles (Minnelli) is struck by the humble young man who knocks on her door seeking boarding. Brian (Michael York) simply wants to find steady work, but in meeting Sally his life and perspectives are permanently altered. She’s simultaneously a joy and a wreck, a woman who sleeps with any man who can move her up the social ladder, if only one rung at a time.
Opposites attract, even if Brian isn’t quite sure of his sexuality.
Interspersed with the challenging Sally/Brian relationship is the Cabaret, overseen by the nameless emcee (Joel Grey) who is alternately charming and creepy but always in charge.
The musical numbers, kept separate from the main narrative, play out like an anything goes distraction to the Nazis’ growing clout. The government may be headed toward fascism, but Germans can still sing, dancer, flirt and mock their desires with alacrity. Director Bob Fosse, already a Broadway staple, bounced back from the box office calamity that was Sweet Charity to embrace the medium.
Sally is lovable in her daffy excess, her paper-thin self regard threatening any sustainable happiness. The film’s abortion subplot represents Sally’s ability to stick her head in the sand while the world swirls all around her, and, subsequently, the Cabaret guests all too eager to do the same.
Cabaret gently inserts the Nazi party into its story line, a delicate marriage which culminates in one of the most frightening musical numbers in any feature film.
“The morning will come when the world is mine,” sings a group of Nazi party loyalists, while York’s character asks a friend if the movement can still be controlled. Earlier, Fosse cuts between a silly slapstick fight at the Cabaret with a real beating delivered by Nazi thugs.
Cabaret’s musical numbers feature impressive choreography, taking advantage of Minnelli’s spunky sex appeal and Grey’s grandstanding. It’s that combination of raw musical talent, historical foreshadowing and an ingeniously constructed love story that makes Cabaret unforgettable.
The Blu-ray package arrives with a commentary track and a bevy of “behind the scenes” snapshots from the film (both new and previously released), analyzing its cultural impact, creative legacy and how Fosse landed the celebrated film.
The 1960s devastated the concept of a movie musical, and Fosse’s film career was on life support when the director heard that Cabaret was in the works. He ended up begging for the gig, and the resulted marked a new chapter in the evolving movie musical format.
The Blu-ray book includes information on how Fosse saw his film as one created in the socially permissive cauldron of the early 1970s, an era which gave rise in his eyes to a “reactionary right wing” response. The film itself bears no direct claim to that philosophy, and the rising Nazi threat doesn’t appear related to any of the antics in Sally’s Cabaret.
Note: Below is a picture of Cabaret stars Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey reminiscing at the Ziegfeld Theatre Jan. 31 to celebrate the film’s 40th anniversary restoration. Other original Cabaret stars on hand for the event included Michael York and Marisa Berenson.