Nations are not swayed overnight, and hatred isn't born with the simple flick of a switch. Irrational bigotry takes time to simmer and fester, silently infecting its victims by preying on desperation and fear. What starts out as a mere whisper, initially dismissed or ignored, can eventually gain momentum, boiling into a dark rallying cry that marches over decency and compassion. Set during the fading twilight of Weimar-era Berlin, Bob Fosse's groundbreaking dramatic musical, 'Cabaret,' subtly chronicles the rise of Nazism -- and it does it all with a little song and dance. Through the story of a struggling singer who dreams of making it big, the film weaves a multi-faceted, genre defying work, all juxtaposed against the backdrop of a society slowly circling the drain.
Loosely based on the 1966 Broadway show, the story is set in 1931 Berlin and focuses on a young American singer, Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli), who works as a performer at the seedy and eccentric Kit Kat Club. When she rents out a room to an intelligent but reserved English tutor named Brian (Michael York), the two become good friends. Despite Brian's ambiguous sexuality, the pair eventually engage in a romantic relationship, but their coupling is tested when a third party is introduced. Meanwhile, the ascent of the Nazi party looms ever-present in the background, casting a pale cloud of approaching doom over the nation.
Though he received plenty of accolades throughout his career, director Bob Fosse isn't as well known today as some of his other celebrated contemporaries, and that's really quite a shame. An important voice of the New Hollywood movement -- which brought an innovative, independent edge to American cinema in the late 60s and 70s -- Fosse's work helped to usher in a new era of filmmaking that frequently subverted genre expectations. With 'Cabaret,' the director essentially re-imagines the entire concept of studio musicals from the ground up, abandoning the elaborate, feel-good productions of the golden age, in favor of something much more raw and intimate.
Characters don't burst out into random melody to express their emotions or desires. Instead, the musical numbers are all relegated to the stage within the Kit Kat club, maintaining an air of reality throughout the proceedings. Likewise, the subject matter of the story is a far cry from the positive, up-lifting material usually associated with the art form. This is a film that deals with serious and provocative subject matter, resulting in a song and dance experience geared exclusively toward adults. Truly original when first released in 1972, the film hasn't lost any of its creative luster, and still manages to feel fresh despite its weighty influence on subsequent works.
An undercurrent of escalating gloom permeates throughout the proceedings, delicately informing all of the film's various storylines. The narrative mostly follows Sally and Brian's developing romance, which leads to a rather unconventional love triangle that tackles the characters' oscillating jealousy. An important subplot also focuses on a German man's attempts to woo an affluent Jewish woman, and the writers throw in an ironic third act twist. Throughout it all, the gradual rise of anti-Semitism and Nazism hangs heavy in the film's periphery, and the manner in which Fosse carefully handles the increasing threat is masterful. Through passing comments or minor references, the topic initially stays in the background -- until suddenly, it's not. Mirroring the tragic realities of the era, the spread of fascist hostility sort of sneaks up on the runtime, and once it finally asserts itself, it becomes clear that there is no going back.
Between all the drama, the movie takes frequent excursions into the lively Kit Kat Club, setting the stage for several contextually relevant musical numbers that offer further commentary on the script's deeper themes. Cramped and marked by a circus-like atmosphere, the hazy, claustrophobic space becomes the home for a series of expertly choreographed sequences that really show off Fosse's gift for dance. The hypnotic, playful movements are all perfectly married to the music, and as bolstered by the songs' often farcical lyrics, these scenes become much more than simple breaks from the main narrative.
Through cross-cutting and dialectical montage, the director expertly juxtaposes several of the deceptively jaunty tunes with more disturbing imagery (like a gang of Nazis brutally beating a man), drawing meaningful parallels between the two. Likewise, the film's compositions and camera movements work in tandem with its theatrical subjects, further embellishing the slightly exaggerated world of the club through grotesque flash. Much like the dancers themselves, Fosse's visual and editing style follows a meticulously planned, but altogether unpredictable rhythm, giving aesthetic life to the sleazy, dizzying cabaret.
Stepping into the smoky spotlight, Liza Minnelli shines brightly as the enthusiastic but delusional dreamer Sally Bowles. Childlike, eccentric, and fueled by an infectious thirst for life, the character is somehow graceful, crass, pouty, sultry, and totally awkward all at once. Always aspiring just outside her reach, she hides a tragic layer of fragile desperation beneath an outward veneer of confidence. Minnelli does an amazing job of realizing all of the woman's strengths and flaws -- and when she takes to the stage… wow. The actress absolutely explodes, giving a truly powerful and commanding musical performance that bursts from the screen.
As memorable as Minnelli is, in the role of the enigmatic Master of Ceremonies, Joel Gray just might steal the show. Limited only to the Kit Kat Club and having no actual dialogue outside of songs, the part isn't so much an actual character as it is a living extension of the stage itself. An ambiguous, creepy, almost otherworldly figure, Gray could be interpreted as an impish embodiment of the film's escalating dread. Though he at times seems rather harmless and benign, during key moments the director will quickly cut to the character's unsettling smile, cementing the theatrical specter as some kind of foreboding omen of things to come.
Bookended by shots of a distorted reflection, the film concludes with a simple but utterly haunting image. An eerie portent of further horrors lurking just around the corner, the final scene manages to speak volumes, saying everything that needs to be said through so little. A powerful reinvention of the Hollywood musical, 'Cabaret' chronicles a brief dalliance between two seemingly opposite individuals in Berlin, while the city slowly succumbs to the tragic spread of hatred. As Sally Bowles sparkles on the tiny, seedy stage of the decadent Kit Kat Club, the world outside quietly crumbles, and the spotlight dims on a nation soon to be consumed by shadow.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Warner Bros. presents 'Cabaret: 40th Anniversary Edition' on a BD-50 disc that comes housed in a wonderful digibook package filled with 40-pages worth of interesting production info, essays, and photographs. After some warnings and logos the disc transitions to a standard menu.
The movie is provided with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Though a bit uneven, this is an authentic and respectful transfer.
The restored print is in great shape with no real damage to speak of. A heavy layer of grain is visible throughout, and while natural and filmic in appearance, it does give the image a decidedly rough quality. Fine details are solid, especially in close-ups, but the cinematography has a predominantly soft appearance with frequently hazy, diffuse lighting. Colors during the film's various musical numbers are strong, with some rich blues, reds, and purples offering a decent sense of pop through the Kit Kat club's smoky atmosphere. Off the stage, however, the palette becomes much more drab, and mostly sticks to faded browns and yellows that all work to evoke a bygone era. Likewise, the movie's sense of depth follows suit, demonstrating pleasing dimension during many of the dance sequences and brightly lit outdoor scenes, but becoming flat in most other instances. Contrast is even throughout with natural whites and consistent black levels, but there is some minor crush in nighttime shots.
'Cabaret' features an artistically potent visual style, but the frequently hazy and coarse picture isn't always very appealing. Still, there are several truly striking shots peppered throughout, and thankfully the image is free of any unnecessary processing or "revisionist" manipulation. The video isn't impressive in the same way that many glossy contemporary efforts are, but fans of the movie should be very pleased with this faithful transfer.
The film is presented with an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 track. Optional English, French, and Spanish subtitles are also provided. Though the audio is never exactly enveloping, the modest sound design is potent and the musical numbers sound fantastic.
Dialogue and vocals are clean but speech can sound comparatively thin. The mix is very frontloaded, with only some faint music cues hitting the surrounds. The overall soundstage is also pretty small, but appropriate directional effects (a record playing off to the side, for instance) are spread across the left, center, and right channels when called for. Of course, the real highlights here are the movie's numerous musical numbers, and thankfully these sequences sound great. The songs all come through with solid fidelity, nice separation, and terrific range, delivering crisp, distortion free highs and mids that really let Liza Minnelli's powerful voice soar. Low frequencies are negligible, but there is some minor bass activity during certain music tracks and a key scene involving a passing train. Thankfully, I did not detect any crackles, pops, or hissing.
True surround activity is subdued, but this track shines when it counts. The film's musical sequences are conveyed beautifully, and the studio has resisted the urge to spruce up the original recordings with an overproduced remix.
Thankfully, this isn't just an Anniversary Edition in name only, and Warner Bros has actually put together a strong collection of supplements. All of the extras are presented with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio and the same subtitle options as the main film.
Innovative, unique, and ultimately haunting, Bob Fosse's 'Cabaret' remains an important piece of motion picture art. Its provocative and realistic take on the Hollywood musical left an indelible influence on the industry, and the film remains a true classic. The video is a little hazy, but the transfer is authentic and free of any unnecessary digital manipulation. Though frontloaded, the audio mix serves the film well, and the musical numbers sound fantastic. Thankfully, Warner Brothers has put together a nice selection of supplements for this 40th Anniversary Edition, including a commentary and a new retrospective featurette. Coupled with a great digibook package, this release comes highly recommended.