30 May 2011

In here, life is beautiful

Cabaret, 1972

By the 1970s, audiences had grown tired of the traditional way that Hollywood had been making musical films since the1930s.  They were bored with the whole idea of a character being so moved, being so overcome with emotion, that they just had to sing and dance. They wanted, and needed something new. And Cabaret was just the film that they needed. It was a whole different breed of musical. For starters, its setting was Germany during the rise to power of the Nazi Party. 

The story opens in 1931 Berlin. Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli), an American, is a performer at the decadent  Kit Kat Club. When Brian Roberts (Michael York) moves into the boarding house where she lives, a friendship begins immediately. Not too long after, a romance begins. However, their bliss is short lived as the Nazi Party grows in power. Throw in a subplot of a poor Catholic man's romance with a rich Jewish heiress, and yet another when a rich businessman romances both Sally and Brian, and you've got one hell of a great story.

There wasn't any question who should play Sally. Bob Fosse had directed Liza Minnelli's Sally on stage, and she was the one he cast in his film version. And on film, Minnelli has never been better. She plays Sally with a frantic energy that borders on mania. She is blissfully happy, so happy, that you suspect it is an attempt to cover up her unhappiness. Minnelli brought pain and vulnerability to a character that otherwise would have been rather annoying and intolerable.

  In the same way that her mother, Judy Garland could, Minnelli could act while she sang, and she could sing while she acted. You can sense her hope in "Maybe This Time", and in the show's finale, "Cabaret", her frantic energy comes to a head, as she desperately attempts to boost the spirits of the ordinary German people living in extraordinary times. In recognition of such a brilliant performance, Minnelli would be rewarded with a Best Actress Academy Award.

Another essential part of Cabaret is Joel Grey's Emcee. His life's purpose is to help people forget their troubles and give them a place to come where "Life is beautiful. The girls are beautiful. Even the orchestra is beautiful." To give them a break from reality and an increasingly hostile world and offer them a few precious hours of decadence. Giving people reason to laugh is what he does. Constantly joking, he takes particular delight in mocking Hitler and the Nazi party, smearing mud under his nose in a Hitler mustache, Nazi saluting the audience, and leading his dancers offstage in a goosestep. Grey won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance.

The best aspect of Cabaret is the way the songs do not hinder the story. In fact, they do just the opposite. They actually help the story move forward, and, much like Kander and Ebb's Chicago, actually illustrate what is going on in the lives of the characters. It's one of the earliest examples of a story not having to come to a screeching halt because a character suddenly feels the need to sing and dance. This is helped by the fact that except for one, all of the musical numbers take place in the same location: On stage at the Kit Kat Club. This helps them in their advancement, rather than hindrance of the story.

Cabaret is a genius piece of film. There's really nothing else like it, it has the perfect cast, the cinematography, sets, and costumes are gorgeous, and the music is some of the best ever written. While it was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, it lost to The Godfather (a great film, but in my opinion, not on the same level as Cabaret). It is bold, daring, brash, in your face, unapologetic, and makes you think. What more could you ask for?

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