Sunday, 30 May 2010

Life is a Cabaret

Later today I’m hosting a blog-a-thon celebrating the wondrous musicals of the cinema. Check back later in the day for all the entries, here’s mine.
        
"Divine Decadence Darling"
I always say that I love Cabaret against my better judgement. Not one of Ebb & Kander’s stage shows is as saturated with classics like the original play and I always bemoan the fact that the film couldn’t make use of excellent standards like “Don’t Tell Mama” or “I Don’t Care Much”. Then, there’s the fact that they took a perfectly competent book and eviscerated it for reasons that are beyond my understanding. Yes, when I think about Cabaret it gets me as exasperated as much as it gets me cheerful. But, when I actually sit down to watch it, and the notes begin playing to usher in the beginning of “Wilkkomen” I’m already so far gone into a reverie that I immediately forget what it was that got me annoyed in the first place.
                
"Wilkkomen, Bienvenue, Welcome"
Cabaret takes place in Berlin during the onset of World War II and the actual Cabaret where we meet Sally Bowles and the Master of Ceremonies is as cathartic as can be. Sure, everything offered there is as synthetic as the dancing girls, but for a few moments it allows the Berliners to step outside of their horrid reality. In the wake of this calamity Cliff, a would-be writer, arrives at the Cabaret falling in love with Sally Bowles – our sociable heroine. But in this way, I suppose Cabaret is not so much a story about what happens as it is a story about how it happens. Fosse has always has his reputation for being an especially stylistic man, and Cabaret represents the zenith of his talents. For, in many ways, Cabaret is a bit like an allegory. We’re transported by the bawdy music and scintillating dances so that by the time tragedy is at hand we’re surprised, even though it’s been sneaking up on us for the entire film. It’s in this way that I (almost) forgive the excision of so many great numbers, and I suppose it’s important that York doesn’t do any singing. Sure, it’s been argued, he’s not really a lead in the film – and he isn’t in the typical sense. But it’s important that what we see of the Cabaret begins with his entrance and ends with his departure. He doesn’t sing, because we don’t either. He’s the only lifeline we have with this corrupted Berlin. More importantly, he can’t cope in a world so egregiously corrupted – neither can we.
               
"Tomorrow Belongs To Me"
But then, how can one call a sensation like Minelli’s Sally Bowles corrupted? It’s a perfect combination of star and character and Liza’s Sally is a force to be reckoned with, even if she does sing too well for the novice that Sally should be. Few musical moments are as heart wrenching as when she takes to the stage to sing “Maybe This Time” – a number that for some reason isn’t as oft remembered as it should be. Joel Grey’s androgynous Master of Ceremonies is more obviously perverse. The man has a talent for showmanship, and I’m still surprised that Oscar decided to reward him in the face of the more typical lineup. It’s a job well done on their part. I suppose in some ways, Fosse really is the star of the show. His direction is flawless, and even though I’ll forever hold that grudge for the shafting of this flick in the Best Picture category, at least they rightfully recognised Fosse for his directing. As we prepare for Liza’s final number I’m never sure if we should be praising her or Fosse. We notice his eerie theatrics as the screen is clouded and we notice how Liza manages to reach to the flawed core in the eponymous number. For us to understand Cabaret we have to understand the title number first. It’s not a song of irrepressible joy, but a resignation to a life of unfulfilling debauchery in the face of real pain. She realises the desperation and frenzy in the piece and as she sings those final few lines you can’t help but pity this ridiculous creature. They're all looking forward to tomorrow while simulatenously afraid to face it...and who can blame them?
          
No matter how much I wish Cabaret had done differently, I realise always that I can’t argue that what it does – because that is done flawlessly. I can’t think of any musical piece that manages to impress both dramatically and musically as this. It’s a perfect combination of skill on all counts and it cruises dangerously close to perfection.
…oh yes, it also happens to my favourite musical film…hence, the review…

7 comments:

Twister said...

Andrew, you'll be happy to know that I am quite fond of this film, including all leading and supporting actors!

Liza makes the perfect Sally, and Joel is completley immursed in the MC, its crazy.

Fosse's direction perfectly suits the dark, broodingness of the play, and it's he through much of the film's success' flow.

NATHANIEL R said...

i love this movie too (in my top ten of all time) but honestly i think it's SO much stronger than the original stage musical... so i don't miss those songs much. With the possible exception of "Don't Tell Mama" which is a totally fun song.

Twister said...

Oh yeah, I forgot my favorite moment: that triangle of possibilities. Max, Sally, and Brian in that awkward silence, hudled together and take a moment to see what's really happening. Fosse shoot it and stages it perfectly.

It's the kind of image you wouldn't be able to capture on stage, thus supporting my belief that film can in many ways deepen the proccedings of play's and musical's that get tranferred to the big screen.

Jose said...

I'm not as familiar with the songs that were left out so I love the movie for what it is: a big celebration of let's drink, smoke and sing cause we're all going to die anyway.

joe burns said...

I LOVE this movie! Liza gives one of the greatest performances ever and the direction and songs are great! I agree with Nathanie, I don't really miss the old songs and I think Mein Heir is a much better number then Don't Tell Mama, but that's just my opinion. Great review!

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

twister yeah that triangle staging was rather effective. yes despite my petty gripes, it knows what do in taking a stage musical to screen. it's not a film version of the stage version, but a completely different deity.

nathaniel well i haven't seen the stage version (the movie script is definitely stronger than the stage script - still strangely oscarless). i really would have liked to see liza sing don't tell mama.

jose let's drink, smoke and sing cause we're all going to die anyway. yes, yes and yes. sally and the emcee to a degree are so deluded, they don't even realise the craziness that's going on in their own backyard. but ah well, life is a cabaret yada yada ya

joe i'd give you mein herr being better, but i'm a completist like that. liza truly is spectacular. easily my favourite musical performance and one my top 10 favourite performances - ever.

Marcy said...

You did a wonderful job professing your mixed bag of emotion and love for this film.

I don't think I can agree with you, though. I've never been a fan of Cabaret, the film. While it has some wonderful musical numbers (Liza is awesome), I just found the pacing to be rather slow and melodramatic...

However, I saw the stage musical recently (my school did a great production of it) and it was much better than the film. The stage musical flows wonderfully and unlike the film, isn't just plodding along. "Eviscerated" is the right word for the film's treatment of the musical book.

And I've never understood Joel Grey's Oscar win. I mean, c'mon...Al Pacino.