Tuesday, May 5, 2015

AFI Top 100: #63 "Cabaret"

Liza Minnelli in Cabaret (1972)

An epic return to our AFI Top 100 countdown, after several weeks away, brings us director/choreographer Bob Fosse's film adaptation of the stage musical Cabaret, roaring in at #63, the only modern (post-1970s) musical to grace the list. The music by John Kander creates the stage for a truly groundbreaking film, simultaneously subtle and overt, told in Fosse's own dark, twisted style.

The story of lives that intersect at a burlesque cabaret in Germany during the early 1930s, at the time of the Weimar Republic and the dawn of Nazism. Hitler is only years from taking complete power, and the scene is wild with liberal-minded travelers, financial uncertainty, and dangerous free love between the sexes. Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli) is the hypnotic American star at our depraved cabaret, the Kit Kat Klub, who meets British professor Brian Roberts (Michael York) when he rents a room in the same apartment as her. While Brian's sexual tastes lean more towards the masculine, the two begin a friendship that blossoms into a sort of sexual and emotional comfort. Their desperate battle to find happiness and security with another soul drives their sequestered and narrow world-view. As Brian navigates Sally's vain neurosis alongside his own insecurities, neither lover notices the political change happening slowly and steadily around them.

While no reference to Hitler is ever made, the undercurrent of Nazism's growing popularity is ever-present in the climate surrounding the Kit Kat Klub and the population of an increasingly more conservative Berlin. Through Kander's spectacularly pointed music and lyrics, always (with one unsettling exception) taking place on the Kit Kat stage, it is the Master of Ceremonies (Joel Grey), a grinning, all-seeing presence, that slyly leads us all down the path from playful debauchery to frightening prejudice. Only on stage are we free to say and hear the truth... but not for long.

Minnelli's Sally Bowles is on the periphery of the story only through the opening number, and then she comes in like a wrecking ball with the infectious, rousing anthem "Mein Herr," and she brings the house down. Minnelli is the superstar performer that Sally wishes she was, channeling mama Judy Garland in both voice and presence. As for the role she embodies, Sally has the talent, but none of the luck. She's also a pathological liar, incapable to self-awareness in the face of all her tall tales but confident in her ability to get away with them all.

Every song, clustered more towards the beginning but littered nicely throughout, are emblematic of every thematic shift and characterizationour lovers exploring their lives together while the world around them undergoes even more significant changes. It's easy to bury your head in the sand when all of the luxuries of the world are laid out in front of you, however briefly. Bob Fosse so expertly constructs a film where the protagonists are blissfully unaware of what the story is actually about, and how their dismissive, self-centered approach to life can only come back to bite them in the ass later on.

To even fall into a spiral of talking about the songs, or how perfectly choreographed each sequence is by Fosse, you run the risk of severely understating their significance. They are absolutely exhilarating to watch and hear. From the comedy of "Money, Money" to the hopefulness of "Maybe This Time," the upbeat tragedy of "Cabaret," and pointed brilliance of "If You Could See Her," it's impossible not to be moved. There are points when the gravity of the situation sneaks up on you, shown through action separate from the primary story and our stars, where we catch a glimpse of horrors to which they remain completely blind. For the unsuspecting viewer this can be a bit jolting, crude, and off-putting, especially if your aim is to bop your head to the songs and ignore the politics lapping at the edges of the film.

Be warned, the serious undercurrent can knock you over; but you will be rewarded by sticking with it, because Fosse and the cast commit so wholly, it creates nothing short of magic. Cabaret is a real reflection of what can be done if you bring all the right elements together, and considering its uniqueness... drama, comedy, musical, period piece, political satire... it defies classification. Watch and enjoy, and be sure to sing along.

Rating:  ★★★★½ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © Allied Artists Pictures]

Check back next week for #63 on the list, American Graffiti — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

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