Cabaret is probably best remembered as the other great movie from 1972… the one that wasn’t The Godfather. Comparisons become inevitable, especially since both films went head-to-head at the Oscars and ended up stealing each other’s thunder. (More on that later.) The film’s release on Blu-ray gives us another chance to ruminate on its legacy, and remind us what a fantastic movie it remains. Hit the jump for my full review.
Above all Cabaret is a musical for people who hate musicals. Director Bob Fosses never breaks the atmosphere for singing and dancing: almost all of the numbers occur onstage in Berlin’s Kit-Kat nightclub, where the city’s residents merrily fiddle while their world burns down around them. The Weimer Republic falters and the Nazis are on the rise, but the cabaret and its sinister MC (Joel Grey) continue on as if everything is marvelous. They carry a seductive, beguiling air… keeping people distracted and asleep while the greatest evil humanity has ever known silently rises among them. American Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli) constitutes the club’s chief draw, sharing in its vibrancy even as it slowly sucks her dry. She meets a nice Englishman, Brian (Michael York), who hopes to rescue her from her slow dive. Their affair encompasses love triangles, homosexuality, forbidden books and shades of sadomasochism, wrapped in the freewheeling hedonism of a culture getting ready to plunge off the cliff.
Fosse was always a choreographer first, and his dance numbers here possess a compulsive fascination that pulls us in as inexorably as they do the patrons of the club. He expands on that with more disturbing images of stormtroopers mixing it up in the street, their increasing moral savagery matched by the frentic onstage numbers. But he also shows an equally deft touch with the central romance, as well as more subtle character details that reflect the growing complexities between the Sally, Brian and their circle. Fosse’s innovation as a dancer can scarcely be measured (among other things, he’s credited with influencing Michael Jackson), but he never married that skill to compelling drama as potently as he did here.
The same thing could be said of Minnelli, whose showstopping performance moved her from just being Judy’s daughter to legitimate stardom on her own terms. She understands Sally’s combination of lovability and self-destruction only too well I suspect, flanked by pitched battles with the same demons that claimed her mother. Sally stands poised between York’s innate onscreen decency and Grey’s perfect infernalism, though the underlying tone leaves little question as to which side will prevail.
Indeed, the entire movie reeks of despair, plastered over with painted smiles but touching upon the darkest horrors of the 20th Century. The characters either shrug off their own damnation or flee while they still can. Fosse reflects that in every aspect of the production, while drawing us into the same moral quagmire through misdirection and charm. We applaud seemingly benign numbers before devastating reveals turn them on their ears, matching the well-meaning people onscreen who submit to Nazism so gradually they’re hardly aware of it until it’s too late. The extra features bill Cabaret as the first musical to seriously deal with adult themes, and the assessment becomes hard to deny. Without it, we wouldn’t see the likes of Chicago, Rent or Les Miserables; indeed, we might not have movie musicals at all anymore, considering how close the genre was to death’s door when Fosse came along.
Which brings us to its Oscar legacy, marked by a collision course with The Godfather that continues to influence its reputation today. Fosse beat Francis Coppola for Best Director while Grey took the Best Supporting Actor award from Al Pacino (as well as James Caan and Robert Duvall). That last one tends to bother people the most, since Pacino had to wait twenty years to finally get his due. (Coppola, at least, won for The Godfather Part II just two years later.) That injustice clouds a truly fantastic performance from Grey, creating one of the most quietly frightening characters in all of cinema. I’m not prepared to call it better then Pacino’s – none can stand against Michael Corleone – but brilliant in its own right? Oh sweet Jesus yes. Cabaret fully deserves its status alongside one of the greatest movies ever made, an equal in many ways and a resounding affirmation of the movie musical as a true art form.
The new Blu-ray cribs quite a bit from earlier DVD copies, bolstered by Warners’ digibook packaging and a terrific new documentary discussing the movie’s production. In addition, it contains two docs from earlier DVD releases, an informative commentary from historian Stephen Tropiano, the original trailer, and a series of interview snippets from most of the principal cast and crew. (Fosse, who died in 1987, is the only notable absence.) The snippets can be little frustrating – most are only a minute or so long and there’s no “Play All” option, so you constantly bump back to the main menu as you work your way through. The image itself constitutes an improvement from DVD, but still suffers from a certain amount of graininess. The price is right, however, (currently under $20 at Amazon), and even those who own the DVD will appreciate the improved features and look of the film here. You won’t see many this potent, this powerful or this irresistibly brave.