I’ve always been a big fan of movie adaptations of Broadway musicals especially when the film can stand as a film by itself. “The Producers” was not an example of this, it was just like a filmed version of the show with a few Hollywood stars thrown in for ticket sales. I love “Grease” and “Rocky Horror Picture Show” because they still seem like they are Broadway even when they are held as superior on film. 2002’s “Chicago” was a rebirth of the movie musical adaptation, and was held in high regard due to its use of the stage to create musical numbers, not just having the cast burst into song for no reason during lunch. I really didn’t know what I was going into when I rented the 70s classic “Cabaret”, I had just heard that Liza Minnelli was supposed to be fantastic.
The film is not a traditional musical film. Each musical number takes place on the stage of a racy cabaret stage in pre-WWII Germany and that’s all. Liza stars as Sally Bowles, a young performer of said stage who one day wants to become an actress in film. Michael York stars as a man named Ben who has come to Germany to teach English, and finds himself living in the same boarding house as Sally. They quickly become friends and then lovers. York and Minnelli have an odd chemistry, but it is quite believable that these two characters truly love each other, something I attribute to the actors and to the screenwriter who seems to know the pain and suffering of a relationship. No matter how Ben and Sally want to be together, there is a feeling of distance between the two due to their completely different personalities. Liza Minnelli delivers this pain a little stronger than York, who is a great actor but is better at playing a more straight man than an emotional one (when he gets angry, it reminds me of the episode of “Seinfeld” in which Jerry finds out he’s terrible at being mad, emotionally). Liza really does deserve all the praise and awards for this film, especially for her delivery of the titular theme at the end of the film. You can really feel that she is attached to the stage and truly in love.
I watched this DVD about two weeks ago, and the one thing that has been stuck in my head is Joel Grey. His performance of the Emcee is one of the best I’ve ever seen in a film. I was completely blown away every time he came onto the stage and performed. He stares into the camera and both grabs the audience’s attention and creates a feeling that can’t quite be described. His character is very scary, which is rare for a musical. There is a “flash forward” scene in which Sally thinks about what her life would be like as a mother and Joel Grey’s character just comes of as completely terrifying in it. The make-up and the spot on German accent really blew me away, and I’ve never really felt that about a character in a musical film. While Liza Minnelli is one of the main reasons people watch this film, Joel Grey is the reason why it is a solid musical film that should be celebrated.
The biggest problem I had with the film was its secondary plot. Like I said before, the film takes place in pre-WWII Germany and the rising fear and uneasiness of the Nazi party is a major theme of the film. There were a lot of subplots involving Sally and Ben’s friends who are in love but have issues with their judiasm (he is hiding it from her because he doesn’t want to disprove his manly reputation, even though she is Jewish too). Each scene that tries to address this theme seems out of place and uninteresting against the plot of the cabaret and the love story of Sally and Ben. Towards the end of the film, almost everything is about Nazis when it should be explaining how their relationship is surviving. Each musical scene towards the end metaphorically suggests the political temperature and both the feelings of Sally and Ben but I really didn’t care because I was getting tired of that Nazi subplot.
I really enjoyed the music of the film and I hope to buy the DVD someday because I love it a lot for that music and for the performances. Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey made this film a terrific film, and a wonderful adaptation of a show that I would love to see live (perhaps many of the scenes I didn’t enjoy are not part of the original show). If that subplot hadn’t been so prominent and so boring I would have fully been blown over by this whole film but I wasn’t. I was surprised and impressed by the imitable performances however so I give Cabaret a B+.