"Go on, try some of my happy grass.
It's like parsley, only different!"
We suppose that it was inevitable. Given the number of movies we watch, a review of a Liza Minnelli film would have to crop up at some point. Fortunately, this film is probably her best, and it just happens to fit the theme of our Spring 1998 Film Series.
Cabaret is set in Berlin just before World War II, when the Nazis are just beginning to rise to power. Brian Roberts (Michael York, best known for his starring role in Logan's Run) seeks lodgings at the local boarding house and is greeted by the effusive Sally Bowles (Minelli). They take an immediate liking to one another, especially once Sally offers the use of her larger room for Brian's English teaching sessions. Sally, who works as a performer at the nearby KitKat club, soon initiates Brian into the more sordid aspects of Berlin nightlife, and soon after that, Brian is translating soft core German pornography into English for extra money. You might call it a family film... if you're talking about the Manson family.
All of those elements mentioned in the previous paragraph have their places in the plot of Cabaret, but that's hardly the whole story. Cabaret is a kind of movie they don't make any more, a kind of movie called a "musical." These days, if you want to see a musical, you have to either watch The Simpsons or Disney movies. The chances of finding anything aproaching a musical in a movie theater are very slim, unless that theater happens to do midnight showing of Rocky Horror Picture Show.
In Cabaret, the musical numbers are technically occurring on the stage of the KitKat club, but almost all of them comment on the plot in some way. Most of them also comment on the human condition. Not bad for a movie starring Liza Minelli. The numbers are the product of choreographer/director Bob Fosse. Fosse is an enormously talented person, and he stages some truly unforgettable dancing numbers. Because it is a Fosse musical, we get a dance number involving scantily clad women and chairs. There's also the famous "Money makes the world go around" number, and a bit about the joys of menage a trois.
Joel Grey and friend.
(Grey is the one on the right.)
Making these numbers work in front of the camera is Joel Grey, who plays the Master of Ceremonies at the KitKat. The M.C. acts as a sort of narrator for the story, providing perspective on the larger plot of the film within the context of the club. When a secondary character falls in love with a Jewish girl at the same time the Nazis are gaining popularity, the M.C. responds with a love song for a gorilla called "If You Could See Her Through My Eyes." All of these numbers are masterfully placed, usually to comic effect.
Michael York and Liza Minelli are wonderfully placed in this film. York is completely believable as the befuddled young Englishman, struggling with the fact that he apparently "doesn't like girls," despite his obvious intellectual attraction to Sally. Minelli's Bowles is appropriately boisterous and narcissistic, right down to the moment when she throws herself, half-naked, onto Brion's bed, asking, "Doesn't this body just drive you wild with desire?" Even if her body doesn't do the trick, Minelli's voice is much like her mother's: warm and low, and often (especially in this movie) seductive. It's hard to think of a better vehicle for Minelli's talents, which is perhaps why it's her most often remembered role.
Cabaret's greatest strength is that it doesn't take itself too seriously. Although the topics in the film are fairly serious -- bisexuality, unwanted pregnancy, bigotry -- each one is handled carefully to avoid bogging the film down too much. This precise mix of seriousness and frivolity is a relief in a day when dramas are usually too weighty to be enjoyed.