Cabaret (1972, Bob Fosse)

I sat transfixed in front of this so many times as a child, but that experience with it is just distant enough that I can no longer really parse out what it was that so deeply excited me about it. From first frame to last, I remember being captivated, which means that either I was more broad-minded about menage a trois relationships as a preteen than I’d expect or that I simply tuned out much of the film’s story, which not only carries basically no appeal to a young child but frankly has very little to offer anyone. Whereas the stage version of Cabaret matches its haphazardly scattered musical numbers with vignettes, Bob Fosse’s film hinges mostly upon a single plot, although not one that truly has anyplace interesting to go. When it’s exhausted such things, it just stops dead and tries to place itself in a context it can’t really have. Fosse would’ve maybe done well to stick with the less classical structure of the play, even if as film musical this is still remarkably unusual and innovative. But will anyone argue with the statement that the songs are the best part? My kindergarten self certainly wouldn’t have. In bed with Scarlett fever, I remember watching the film then rewinding it and just fast forwarding the worn-out VHS tape to each of the musical numbers. It’s not a bad way to experience this.

Fosse’s reenactment of a Weimar Republic music hall in the eye of the Berlin hurricane is indeed nothing short of dazzling — and its detail it just vivid enough to be an eye-opening, surreal experience on a screen large or small. In his role as emcee of the joyously decadent Kit Kat Club, Joel Grey pops up and struts around with unstoppable grace as he introduces us to his sexy orchestra and leads us into “Willkommen” and “Mein Herr” and “Money Money,” sings “Two Ladies” and “If You Could See Her” himself, and that’s not even touching the legendarily sinister “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” the actively stunning “Maybe This Time,” and of course the literally show-stopping title song. John Kander and Fred Ebb’s songs are invariably great and cheerily presented by winning arrangements and dancer Fosse’s glorious choreography. He skimps on nothing, fully owning the scene in a manner that a lesser, more moralistic director never would. If only the remainder of the film were as free-form and delirious as the musical scenes, which stop the story and ironically comment upon it in a most unusual, and unusually logical, fashion for a film musical. I feel as if the Kit Kat Club might well have worked better as the scene of all of the action in the film.

In and outside of the club, Cabaret‘s sense of time and place is firmly presented and well-grounded; even at its most stylish, it never violates its sense of period sweep. (Maybe this explains why Nazi Germany, particularly in the years before the war’s breakout, has always morbidly fascinated me.) The clear skies and alternately dirty and glitzy interiors put across the mundane pregnancy of a country on the verge of fearsome change. Fosse brilliantly completes this thought with his simple but unforgettably eerie final shot, of Swastika-banded men sitting casually at the Kit Kat to be entertained — their militaristic incongruity the unmistakable mark of what’s to come.

But amidst all this great stuff, did we mention there’s a story? After a fashion, at least. The one given to us involves a rather bland love triangle between vivacious American Sally Bowles and her prim, possibly bisexual boarder Brian — a tiresomely priggish Michael York — and then a wealthy, openly bisexual and freewheeling socialite played with beaming emptiness by Helmut Griem. No doubt the three-way kiss they share is a major moment, particularly in so widely embraced a film, but things sort of drift down into a drain from there — pensive growing pains in a weird, one-sided relationship, a potential pregnancy, and some highly normal interpersonal crises are set against the film’s historical interests somewhat awkwardly. The two elements do come together somewhat more naturally during the diegetic song sequences, but Fosse only plays subversively with this a couple of times, like in a brief and tantalizing reprise of “Money Money” that echoes off into the distance suggestively after we discover that Griem’s character has some.

Though cut down dramatically from the stage musical, Cabaret still doesn’t fully take into account how much more precious movie time is than stage time — 128 minutes is too long for its loose-leaf structure and by the time we reach the pregnancy-and-apathy questions near the climax, the film has become a bore. But it does bring everything together in the classic spirit of the “one more time!” encore for the completely cathartic performance of “Cabaret” itself by Minnelli. In general, her performance is wonderful and certainly the best reason to see the film aside from the music: vibrant and giddy, she presents a uniquely American and openly sexual liveliness that far too many directors and actors would sink away from. The film doesn’t condescend to her desires or needs, it’s sympathetic to them. All this comes out in the way she punches every word of “Cabaret” with bleeding identification, awareness. It’s one of a few magic moments in a mess of a film.

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