The first time I saw “Cabaret” was during my sophomore year of high school. I was fortunate to take an Introduction to Film Studies elective taught by my freshman English teacher. I remember him introducing the film to us midway through the year, just as he did all the films we watched. “‘Cabaret’ won eight Academy Awards in 1972,” he told us. “And it didn’t just win for its music! The acting is great throughout, especially the Master of Ceremonies, Joel Grey.” At the end of the period, we were about a third of the way through the film’s 124 minute run time, so we paused until the next day. As I walked out, I stopped at his desk, saying, “Um, Mr. Puccio, did Joel Grey really win an Oscar for this movie?” “Yes, he did,” I was told. “You’ll understand after you’ve seen the whole thing.”
And did I ever.
I couldn’t tell you who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor against Grey that year, but what I can tell you is that he earned his Oscar, just as this film earned its place in film and musical history. It’s a funny, dark and catchy look at a time most in my generation know little about. And maybe that’s the reason it’s being released in a very well off 40th Anniversary Blu-ray Book from Warner Bros.
Along with Grey’s Academy Award, the film won seven others: Art Direction, Cinematography, Directing, Film Editing, Music (Scoring: Adaptation and Original Song Score), Sound and Best Actress (Liza Minnelli). It’s been added to the National Film Registry and selected by the American Film Institute as the fifth best musical ever. And have I mentioned that it was adapted from an excellent, Tony Award winning stage production (there are some differences, mind you)?
All this good press aside, “Cabaret” has some themes and messages that still bear relevance in the twenty-first century. It explores sexuality in a capacity that some today still might have issues with. It offers some direct and indirect political commentary on the Nazi influence and rise to power. It forces a social class examination through characters that are thoroughly written around and for each other rather than just tossed together into a screenplay. And, maybe most important of all, it leaves you pondering where your place in such a speckled, well-illustrated and complex lifestyle would have been. It may be a musical, but it manages to make you think just enough to offset the entertainment value.
Like any good musical, “Cabaret” has both plots and subplots. Brian Roberts (Michael York) arrives in 1931 Berlin to teach English lessons while completing his Ph.D. He sets up shop in a boarding house occupied by Sally Bowles (Minnelli), an American dancer, singer and outgoing attention lover. Their relationship takes center stage, but it consistently intersects with Sally’s job entertaining at the Kit Kat Klub. The Master of Ceremonies (Grey) periodically appears with a song to comment on politics, class, sex and more, thereby pushing “Cabaret” through a tangled web that links Brian and Sally to a German Jew passing as a Christian (Fritz Wepper), a wealthy playboy named Maximilian/Max (Helmut Griem) who prioritizes seducing the pair with his lavish lifestyle, and exposure to an increasingly prevalent Nazi/National Socialist movement.
There are gentle moments that Sally and Brian share, such as her drunken attempts to seduce him for her own pleasure and his sober attempts to reason with her for his own well-being. There are tense, telling moments where sex, excess and pleasure reign supreme, and most are spurred by a Master of Ceremonies led song under the Kit Kat Klub’s bright lights and sultry dancers. And there are moments that foreshadow an unsettling future, like when Brian and Max flee a beer garden due to a Nazi youth leading those in attendance in solidarity and song. These scenes, juxtaposed with the film’s entertainment factor, are so closely connected you can’t imagine one or the other not being a part of “Cabaret.”
Today, I imagine most teens and young adults would rather watch something with excessive explosions or any form of reality television at first glance before watching “Cabaret.” But the best and the brightest in this demographic would surely appreciate a film that does so much in so many capacities. If you can see through the surface, you’ll view some social commentary and perspective that director Bob Fosse probably didn’t know would hold as much weight now as it did then. Hindsight is truly, as they say, 20/20.
I like “Cabaret” because it reminds me of how well films work when they’re very thoroughly made. It’s far from a science to pull something like this off, and I appreciate the role it continues to play in history. If there’s a flaw, it’s that the extremes here are highlighted at a heightened pace, thus likely repelling some viewers who would prefer a more moderate approach to talking about the touchy subjects “Cabaret” fearlessly tackles. But that’s relative, depending on your perspective, and a good film buff should be able to not just suspend his or her disbelief, but also bite on any film that baits its hook as well as this one does.
It’s not really a feel good film, but rather an entertaining head-scratcher that opens itself up without apology. If you’ve seen it, you may be surprised to (re)learn that it’s rated PG. In this case, I shudder to think what a director had to do in 1972 to receive an R (Francis Ford Coppola might have an idea, however, given the fact that he directed a film that beat out “Cabaret” for the Best Picture Oscar that year). There are many pieces of low-hanging fruit here, and whichever one you sample, you’ll likely be pleased and also do a little thinking in the process. Besides, how can you resist stepping into an environment where “…life is beautiful”?
Presented in a solid 1080p High Definition 16×9 1.85:1 screen ratio, “Cabaret” looks as good as it can on Blu-ray disc. It is 40 years old, after all, and I’ve read rumors about the original stock being damaged over time in one way or another. This aside, the coloration is what I’ll remember most, especially the obvious emphasis on contrast by the film’s cinematographers and art directors. The Kit Kat Klub scenes are among the best, as a darkened audience offsets a well-lit and visually appealing stage, sprinkled with vivid brightness and eye-popping scenery. The transfer is good, but it’s not flawless, especially during transition scenes where more grain than I anticipate from HD was evident. Overall, however, this might be the best “Cabaret” has looked in decades.
Your only option is an English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that sounds glorious, sharp and crisp. The musical numbers are what stand out, of course, but even passing conversations and arguments will remind you what a solid audio transfer “Cabaret” received. Background noise doesn’t have much of a role except for the Klub scenes where Sally is jumping from table to table, but that’s fine because it leaves the mastery of song to Grey and his ensemble. Subtitle options are English, French and Spanish. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that a 40-year old musical sounds as good as “Cabaret” does, but it’s impressive work and highlights the music above all else.
Tons to drool over here, starting with a thoroughly detailed Blu-ray book that chronicles the film’s evolution from novel (Goodbye to Berlin, 1939) to play (“I am a Camera,” 1951) to Broadway musical (“Cabaret,” 1966) to motion picture (1972). Brief biographies of the leading stars are also included, as well as some reflection that helps to contextualize the film. The disc features audio commentary from Dr. Stephen Tropiano, the theatrical trailer, and seemingly countless reflections on the film from Minnelli, Grey, York and others. There are perspectives on the music, the acting and the film’s general structural production (which, apparently, was a process). This edition of the film seems to believe that having more special features is much better than not having enough.
A Final Word:
If life is a “Cabaret,” I suppose I’d much rather buy a ticket and check it out instead of choosing to stay away and hear about what was going on therein. This is excellent stuff that I enjoyed more than I thought I would as I watched it for the first time in a long while. It’s nice when things get better with age, isn’t it?