Set in early 1930s Germany, the Liza Minnelli starring Cabaret (1972), is considered one of the greatest musicals of all time. Whilst there are definitely song & dance numbers that are a large part of the film, for me the film does not feel like a musical as such. The songs merely form part of the background to what is an exceptionally clever and adult piece of filmmaking.

cabaret poster

Cabaret is an incredibly original film. From the big opening musical number where the focus is on other dancers in the club, rather than Minnelli who is hidden away at the back, the film just does things differently. Plot wise, the film is a love story of sorts between Minnelli’s bombastic Sally Bowles and the newcomer to Berlin, the Brit Brian Roberts played by Michael York. Brian is a naive force, not ready for the swirling mix of a new country, cabaret, cigarettes, booze and sex which revolves around Minnelli’s character. In its second half the film descends into ever evolving triumvirates of jealousy, the last one which takes up the most time, is the boldest and the cleverest. It leaves you questioning and double questioning the motives, love and lust of all those involved. Whilst the first half  of the film is good, though a little up and down, the second is exceptional, taking the film to places I could not have dreamt of. Complex, dense and brilliant places. I won’t go into too much detail of what they are, because it is best to discover these surprises with minimal knowledge of what is to come. Needless to say though, it is a pretty bold narrative that is willing to aim its story and message at a genuinely adult audience unlike so many films, even ‘serious’ ones, which feel the need to dumb down their message.

I thought I had the film pegged, I knew it was going to descend into a Nazi-centric ordeal in the later stages. But director Bob Fosse is too clever to take it such an obvious direction. Rather  the Nazis continue to loom over the film as an ominous presence, occasionally coming out of the shadows to lay a beating on someone or murder a Jew’s dog, but generally remaining on the periphery of the action. In some ways, they are all the more ominous for this fact as they remain not quite central, leaving the audience to ponder when they will next be injected into the action. The effect is also that the viewer is left to ponder what effect they will have on the characters after the film has finished, as the war years continue to ramp up. The attitudes of some of the characters to the Nazis are also very interesting, especially if they are historically accurate. Viewed by some as nothing more than a fad of young thugs, others (the richer Germans) consider them a good thing. They will get rid of the Commies, and then we (i.e. the German Germans) will get rid of the Nazis. Obviously history shows that is definitely not how things turned out. The film also portrays the ugly narcissism and sheep mentality of Nazism that allowed the scourge to spread throughout Germany like wildfire.

Minelli as she appears in the film

Minelli as she appears in the film

The film is really highly stylised in its shooting, costuming and just overall presentation. It looks excellent and takes you to the time and place that the film is set. The songs, which move from setting the background atmosphere of the cabaret club, to reflecting the narrative action are also really quite good.  They are employed very differently to those in a traditional musical. Whilst they do begin to reflect the story, they are never used to drive the narrative. Rather they reflect on it, provide more detailed comment, but do not move the story along. As a young woman experiencing a bold European lifestyle, Minnelli is fantastic, having a unique and very expressive (in a good way) method of acting. Hers is a much more complicated and intriguing character than one is conditioned to expect from Hollywood filmmaking. She is promiscuous, vulnerable, strong, has her hang ups including daddy issues and harbours dreams (or is that delusions) of film stardom. A woman who cannot bear to be constrained by domesticity and family. Whilst Minnelli is undoubtedly the star of the film and the focus of the narrative, all of the smaller roles are equally as interesting and just as well performed by the actors who inhabit them.

Never mind being one of the best musicals of all time, Cabaret is one of the better films of all time. It is a wonderfully eccentric love story, the kind that it is so rare in film history to get. Singularly original and challenging filmmaking, be sure to check it out if you have never seen it.

Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter

Progress: 70/1001

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14 responses

  1. arnoldthearmadillo | Reply

    Great film, even if you hate musicals, which I do to a certain extent, it still holds together as a really good film

    1. There is definitely something in that. I think that even though it has songs in it, it does not function as a traditional musical. The songs are for the most part to the side of one’s enjoyment of the film and appreciation of its artistry.

      1. arnoldthearmadillo

        I am no great fan of Lisa either, yet in this rtole she shone, perhaps the unsung hero worked in casting..

  2. For the longest time this was my favourite musical, and although it’s now been replaced by Singin’ in the Rain, I still rate it as an exceptional piece of film. It also has one of the scariest scenes that I’ve ever seen on film; to try and indicate which one without revealing spoilers – it’s the song sung in the countryside – do you know which one I mean? That moment chills me more than most horror films do!
    Nice review mate!

    1. Yeah right on. In a strange kind of way, I would say that I prefer this film to Singin in the Rain, but Singin in the Rain is my favourite musical. Just because Singin… is such an archetypical musical, and so much of the joy of that film is wrapped up in the bloody incredible song and dance. With this however, it is so powerful and such an intelligently told story. And whilst the songs tie into and enhance that, they are not as integral. I hope that makes sense.

      And well done on not giving that spoiler away, and you are spot on. That sequence just says so much about what was to come in history I think and how that entire episode was able to play out.

      1. I know what you mean, Singin’ is just such a joy to watch that I don’t think that this can top it, but this is the richer and more powerful film of the two, and by a long way.
        Yeah the songs are really well managed in this film. They also all make logical sense rather than the typical musical scenario where people just break into song in the middle of the street and no one thinks its odd. Which by the way I have no problem with, but I do know some people who like that about Cabaret.

  3. I love the play Cabaret but just could not get behind this movie version.

    1. Interesting. I loved it (obviously). Perhaps it is something to do with familiarity with the source material. I had no knowledge of the stage play at all going in, so that may have had something to do with it.

      1. That’s probably it. I’ve found that often if you love the stage version, the movie version tends to disappoint. Rent is the exception for me and I haven’t seen it yet but I think I’m gonna love Les Mis.

      2. I really enjoyed Les Mis. But again, I have no real knowledge of the source material.

  4. I’m surprised that no one has mentioned Joel Grey. Out of everything I love about Cabaret, he might be my favorite (both role and performance). Everything little gesture and everything he sings – especially “Money” – feels perfect.

    1. He is excellent, you’re right. Especially the song you mention. I was intending on giving that song a specific shoutout in the review, but obviously didn’t get around to it.

  5. Awesome review, man. Really sold me on this one.

    1. Cheers mate, glad you liked it.

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