Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Movie Musicals That Got It Right (Reich?): Cabaret

I'm cheating a little here.  I had said that (except for The Sound of Music) I would stick to reviewing movie musicals produced in the last 15 years.  I had intended my next Movie Musical segment to be about Jersey Boys.  But I just haven't been able to get out to see it.  My "meh, why bother" attitude reflects what I felt when I saw Jersey Boys the musical, and also the movie's general reception.  I do intend to review it before it leaves the theatres, but a Les Miserables movie event it is not.

Then recently, I saw the 1972 movie Cabaret on television, the first time I was able to watch it the whole way through.  Figuring that I would just forget the details if I waited until after reviewing the post-2000 movies, I decided what the hell.

Cabaret is in the Right column because I couldn't justify putting it in the Wrong column, but it's a much more tepid Right than I ever imagined it would be.  Cabaret the movie and stage musical alike are widely celebrated -- the movie if not more so because it made significant changes, yet retains the core of whatever made the stage version so good.  (Some critics of Les Miserables felt that it should have done the same.)  Both are based on a short novel by Christopher Isherwood called Goodbye to Berlin (1939).  While in the original stage musical, the lead female, Sally Bowles, is British and Cliff Bradshaw American, the movie changed it to reflect the nationalities in Isherwood's story, with Sally American and Cliff Bradshaw -- now Brian Roberts -- British.

Set largely in a cabaret club in 1930s Germany, Cabaret sets the whimsy of its lead characters' lives against the growing threat of Nazi power.  It should have stirred many feelings in me, but with the exception of one scene, it didn't.  Maybe it just reflects the fact that I grew up in a different time, and movies are made so differently now.  So while I can say that Liza Minelli as Sally Bowles was winsome, or Michael York as Brian Roberts was awkwardly charming, or that many of the numbers were staged imaginatively, I can't say that any of it left a lasting impression.

Plot Synopsis

Sally Bowles is a young American singer at the Kit Kat Klub in 1931 Berlin, with hopes of becoming a big success.  At the boarding house where she lives, she meets Brian Roberts, a young British writer who plans to tutor Germans for a living while completing his Ph.D.  Since Brian's room is closet-sized, Sally allows him to tutor students in her much larger digs.  So begins their unlikely friendship and even unlikelier romance, interspersed with the madcap numbers at the Kit Kat Club and dark images of the Nazis' rise.

The Good

Gritty Subject Matter.  Cabaret is hardly the first musical to be set during a volatile time period -- The Sound of Music was set also during the Nazi rise -- but it should be applauded for not shying away from the atrocities of Nazism, even at the risk of becoming a "downer."  The Sound of Music portrayed the Nazis as a relentless swarm, but beyond annexing Austria, we never really got a sense of what made them so disturbing.  Cabaret reveals the slow-growing anti-Semitism of everyday German people and the horrors that result.  One character's pet is murdered.  Police stare at a bloody sheet covering a body.  Sally and Brian's landlords trade opinions about a Jewish banker conspiracy.  Even the Kit Kat Klub introduces a number with a gorilla intended to represent a Jewish woman.

But of course the number that makes the hairs on one's neck stand on end is "Tomorrow Belongs to Me."  The iconic scene begins with an outdoor eatery in a bucolic German hamlet.  An angelic-looking boy's singing interrupts the diners' chatter.  Only the boy's face is shown in close up, so right then we suspect something isn't quite right.  As the camera pans down, we see that he is in a Nazi Youth uniform.  Yet his siren song is gripping the villagers one by one.  The longer he sings, the more his voice is joined by others, until it's a lusty anthem sung by the entire crowd.  (All but one elderly man, who must be sadly thinking that the country had enough violence not so long ago.)  It's a microcosm of the fervor that gripped Germany throughout the course of the decade.  Well done.      

Good Performances.  For reasons I go into below, the characters of Sally and Brian did not interest me as much as they should have.  However, they came across much better than they otherwise might have due to Liza Minelli and Michael York's performances.  Minelli is lively throughout, with her distinctive hair and makeup style.  Even beneath that, I can still say that her resemblance to her mother, Judy Garland, who died just three years earlier, is pretty strong.  As is her speaking and singing voice.  Minelli's voice is not as strong as I would like (I know, blasphemy), but she can sing, and does so with gusto throughout.

However, I was more drawn to Michael York's Brian.  Perhaps it was his warmth, his quiet reflectiveness.  He has a sense of the changes taking place much more than silly Sally does, though even he can't fully comprehend.  The more minor characters are good as well, especially Joel Grey's Master of Ceremonies at the Kit Kat Klub, who is at all times cynical and over the top.  A sinister clown, as the best clowns are.    

The Less Good

Lacks Energy.  Was it wrong of me to say this?  Somehow I feel like it was.  But truth be told, I just expected more vibrancy from a movie that spends long segments in a hedonistic cabaret.  Not Baz Luhrman levels of camera spinning and color explosion, just more life to burst out of the screen.  Yet something about the film felt flat to me.  To the extent that the cabaret scenes were active and alive, that energy did not carry over into the non-cabaret scenes involving Sally and Brian.  These scenes felt slow-paced and seemed to last far too long, with the obvious exception of the chilling "Tomorrow Belongs to Me."  Maybe it's just that I grew up in a different time.  Maybe MTV has conditioned me to expect bursts and dazzle, rapid cuts and sweeping pans.  Maybe my brain can't appreciate the stately pace of a 1972 film.  Regardless, I was never quite engaged with what was happening on screen, and thus never felt emotionally invested in the characters.

The Songs.  With the exception of "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" and the "Money" song, none of the songs stuck with me.  I know that some are classics, and shame on me for being critical, but that's just how I feel.

Less Deep Than Appears.  Maybe Cabaret isn't meant to be deep, but then why do a story about the carefree days before the Nazi rise at all?  What is strange about Cabaret is how little Nazism touches the lives of the main characters.  Brian is disturbed by growing Nazi sentiment, but it is his student and her lover who truly feel the effects.  Sally seems completely oblivious, not even reacting to the growing pro-Nazi sentiment of the Kit Kat Klub.

Because of this strange detachment, the Nazi threat never feels as dangerous as it could.  Cabaret seems to rely on the audience's knowledge of the actual Nazis' deeds to provide the necessary horror.

The human drama falls short as well.  Sally may be enthusiastic and unconventional, with a father who just doesn't understand, but there's not much more.  That gets wearisome after a while, even with Liza Minelli's spirited portrayal.  Maybe some of that is intentional: the writer of the story upon which Cabaret is based meant for Sally to be of little talent, but under the belief that she was destined for stardom.  The problem is that Minelli's Sally actually is talented, so if satire was intended, it is never clear.  Meanwhile, Brian is stiff and thoughtful, while sometimes surprisingly playful, but it's hard to say there is anything more to him as well.

Cabaret's message seems to be: "Look at these people and their little unimportant lives.  How silly of them to resent their fathers or to revel in their threesomes when the real threat is growing all around them."  If so, then my response is, "so what?"  Big bad things happen all the time while we go about our daily lives.  Are people just supposed to put their desires on hold to appear concerned enough about a threat that they probably can't do much about?  Yet I have the feeling Cabaret also wants us to be invested in Sally and Brian's relationship struggles.  For reasons I have already gone into, I'm not.  Maybe I'm over-thinking this.  Or maybe I'm not thinking about it enough.     


Cabaret is a classic, and as I've noted above, nothing about it is overtly weak.  It just isn't as dazzling and hedonistic, or dark and powerful, as it thinks it is or wants to be, and that leaves me with an "eh" feeling when I watch it.  Still, it is well made and well worth a viewer's time.  So Willkommen!

For more Movie Musicals That Got It Right or Wrong, go here.

The above images are used under the Fair Use Doctrine.     

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