Saturday, March 4, 2017


CABARET (1972)

Director: Bob Fosse
Screenplay: Jay Presson Allen based on the play by John Van Druten from the stories by Christopher Isherwood

“Cabaret,” can probably be considered the end of the traditional Hollywood musical as we know it. There were musicals after “Cabaret” sure but most of those films did a musical, almost ironically, like it was a nostalgic throwback to an earlier period, like “Grease,” for instance; they would mainly be the only remnants that reminded us that musicals were traditional and common before “Cabaret.” Oddly enough, the movie is directed by one of the great musical stage directors of all-time Bob Fosse. Fosse didn’t make a lot of movies in his life, only about a handful, starting with a couple screen adaptations of his musicals “Sweet Charity,” and “Cabaret,” but he also directed the biopic “Lenny,” about Lenny Bruce. Years after his death, his musical version of “Chicago,” won the Best Picture Oscar, and in that film as well, they used the conceit that all the musical numbers are performed either on an actual performance stage, or are in the characters’ minds. His other especially famous film is “All That Jazz,” an overly autobiographical film about a workaholic Broadway producer obsessed with own upcoming early death. (Fosse, did indeed die young and quite suddenly) Criticized at the time for being a near remake of Fellini’s “8 ½”, I nearly considered placing that film in the canon instead, I might at some point in the future but decided I better take a look at his movie that somehow managed to win eight Oscars the same year “The Godfather,” came out.

One of the ways Fosse killed the old style musical is by eliminating the conceit in musicals that the characters and performers can randomly break in to song-and-dance numbers almost on a whim as though it’s a part of their reality. Fosse would only have song-and-dance numbers in his films if there was an actual song-and-dance number happening on the stage, or in the real life of the characters. But, his use of only diagetic music, that’s only the beginning with “Cabaret,” which is really just a melodrama with occasional musical numbers. 

Those who have only heard about “Cabaret,” or heard the music might be caught blindsided by the film. It’s must've easily been the most depressing movie musical ever made at the time, at least until Lars Von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark”. It takes place in Berlin in the early 1930s, there’s no happy ending at the end for any of its characters, even a wedding scene is filled with underlying grief. The musical numbers take place at The Kit Kat Club, a local Cabaret where Sally Bowles (Oscar-winning Liza Minelli) performs nightly, unemotionally about it. She lives in a boarding house where rooms are rented out, and Brian (Michael York), a British English tutor rents out a room there. These two will soon be involved in a devastating love triangle with Maximillian (Helmut Griem) that will cause great shifts in their quiet rollercoaster of a relationship, both as friends and as lovers. All the while, Berlin is slowly turning from the raucousness of the roaring ‘20s into the Nazi Germany we all know we’ll be seeing soon. 

The movie’s musical numbers mostly involved a clownish-looking M.C. (Oscar-winner Joel Grey) as a debauched host and performer who seems intriguingly unreal, almost acting more like a presence than an actual character. He’s more narrator than character and yet, it became and remains Joel Grey’s most famous role, one he would revive on stage for decades afterwards, until Alan Cumming finally took over the part and breathe new life to it on stage.

There’s no happy ending, there is the famous ending number, sung on stage by Minelli, but the song is sung with irony that times are changing for the worse and a more innocent time is ending, a context of irony that most performers don’t quite realize is apart of the song. Life may be a cabaret. This film correctly asks what that means, and whether or not that’s a good thing.     

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