Having been raised on musicals, it has often surprised people that I have never seen Cabaret. I finally got around to rectifying that.
It’s very hard to write about Cabaret without comparing it to Chicago. The musical style is similar and that Bob Fosse choreography is unmistakable. It was the music that finally got me around to watching the film, having spent a couple of days listening to the soundtrack and reminding myself how many of the songs I knew without even realising it.
For me, the stand out number is Money Money. The staging of that scene is spot on, capturing the nature of greed while balancing it with humour. This is often lauded as the film that made Liza Minnelli, bringing her out of her mother’s shadow and showing her as a star in her own right. She is a brilliant Sally Bowles, completely uninhibited and free with a childlike naivety. However, it was Joel Grey who really blew me away. As the MC, he has an eerie combination of the androgynous and the sleazy, alongside a heavy scoop of wry humour. More than anyone, you get the impression he sees what’s going on in Germany, but isn’t afraid to poke fun at it. It’s a fantastic characterisation and I don’t think the film would be half as good without him.
For those who don’t know, Cabaret is set in Germany during the rise of the Nazis. There presence is initially dismissed as just another group of misfits, but hints of their menace grow, culminating in the disturbing Tomorrow belongs to me. Another brilliantly pitched scene, it begins as a close up of a young boy singing, but as we pan back to see his Hitler Youth uniform and the crowd being to join in with his song and Nazi salute, the idea of “tomorrow” becomes more and more sinister. The final scene in the Kit Kat bar really hammers the message home.
Against this backdrop of the rise of Nazism is a relatively simple plot of boy meets girl. In fact the set up of one American, one German and a Brit almost sounds like the beginning of a joke.
Unlike a lot of traditional musicals, characters don’t burst into song in the middle of conversations, with the exception of Tomorrow belongs to me, all the numbers take place on stage in the Kit Kat Club, giving a big scoop of realism to what is quite a dark movie. Again, I find myself thinking of Chicago, which, particularly in the stage version, balances fantasy music numbers with real life action.
Cabaret is often referred to as a sad movie, with Sally the tragic protagonist, but I’m not sure I agree with that. I was expecting to feel sorry for Sally, but everything that happens to her is her own choice. No one is oppressing her, and the way she ends the movie is entirely by her own doing (I’m trying not to give too much away here.) The final number, Cabaret, is often written about as a powerful moment which disguises Sally’s pain, but in a way I found that rather than feeling hurt and alone at the end of the movie, Sally seems to be triumphant in going back to her cabaret lifestyle rather than the white picket fence that never would have suited her, and that she chose to destroy. She wants to be on stage, and that’s exactly where she ends up, so can she really be seen as tragic? I’d argue that poor Brian gets a much rougher deal of it, although even he seems to have gained more than he’s lost. I guess what it comes down to is that although Cabaret is essentially a love story, we know from the outset that the two characters are incompatible, and we realise with them that although they love each other, they will probably be happier apart.
Having finally seen this much talked about musical, I have to say I don’t rate it as highly as I would many others. There are some knock out moments, but also some slow ones. It’s neither a feel good nor a sad film, but I think that’s exactly where it’s supposed to be. Having said that I would defintely recommend watching it, I think it’s true that it has to be seen, and not just by musical fans, as underneath the jazz hands is a pretty serious movie.