Cabaret (1972)

Cabaret (1972) – So if any of you know me personally (or have clicked on the “About” page on this very website) you will know that I’m an actor. This has thus far extended only to speaking as opposed to singing but after a musical theatre class (and a couple years as a karaoke superstar) I’ve finally gotten my confidence up enough to start auditioning for musicals. The first musical audition I will go to (since high school anyway… where I was never cast) will be Sac State’s Spring production of Cabaret. I’ve been listening to the 1998 soundtrack (with Natasha Richardson and Alan Cumming) nonstop and have familiarized myself with the story and felt I should watch it somewhere. However, I’ve found out that the movie is actually quite a bit changed from the stage version. Oh well. This is my movie review website and in a movie review it doesn’t matter how the movie is in relation to the play, just how the movie works as a movie. Which brings us to the central question: just how is the movie?

In 1931, Bryan Roberts (Michael York) is an English writer who moves into a boarding house in Berlin. There he meets Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli), a cabaret singer at the nearby Kit Kat Klub. Sally is the type of woman who gives into every passing whim and is constantly talking about whatever passes through her mind, specifically her deluded dreams of becoming a famous actress. Despite initial resistance (on his part), the two become lovers. Then they meet Maximilian (Helmet Griem), a wealthy German aristocrat who seemingly has an interest in Sally… or Bryan… or both. There is also a subplot about Fritz (Fritz Wepper), a social climber looking to marry a wealthy Jewish heiress (Marisa Berenson) but ends up falling for her for real. Throughout all the plots going on, the National Socialist party is rising in prominence. The main story, as well as the shifting political climate, are commented up on wryly (through song in the Kit Kat Klub) by the Emcee (Joel Gray), who sort of resembles a ghoulish Eddie Cantor.

Well, the big shift from the play (and the one that I think is relevant to a film critique) is that the music is all diegetic, taking place as cabaret numbers as opposed to spontaneous outburst of emotion like in more traditional musicals (including the stage version). This cuts out a couple great songs from the play, but moving on. The movie sometimes feels unfocused. There’s also the matter of the acting. Liza Minnelli is great as a fucked-up woman (gee, wonder how she managed to swing that) in a way that’s reminded of people I’ve met. Joel Gray is outstanding as the film’s unsettling Greek chorus. They both deserved the Oscars they won for their roles. Everyone else however comes off… I’m not sure if “wooden” is quite the right word, but it’s the first that comes to mind. Legendary Broadway choreographer Bob Fosse directed the film and he brings a Fellini-esque sense of the grotesque to certain scenes that suggest the stronger film that could have been made. For such a famed choreographer I was surprised his film didn’t feel more dynamic. The music, by John Kander and Fred Ebb is, as you would assume, quite well-written and in most cases very well performed (though I like the 1998 versions better). There’s a lot to like about Cabaret but also a lot that misses the mark. In the end, greatness eludes the film (surprising me somewhat, given its reputation). One wonders why they didn’t stick closer to the source material.

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