Cabaret ★★★

25 Films x 4 Decades: 1970s

After not liking All That Jazz, my expectations for Cabaret were realistic. I knew that it was possible Bob Fosse's directing style was simply not something I was programmed to enjoy. The end result is a film that seems inconclusive. Definitely more up my alley than All That Jazz, Cabaret is still not a film I would quite say I liked. More-or-less, it is an above average musical (in my books) that has some positives and some drawbacks that leave it being a pretty muddled and mixed bag at the end of the day.

First, the negatives. Though La La Land has come under fire for its weak or bad singing from Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, it is abundantly clear to myself that both Stone and Gosling turn in better singing performances than Liza Minnelli and especially Joel Grey in Cabaret. Neither impress, instead turning in bland performances of bland songs such as "Money, Money" or "Two Ladies" (for Grey). Yes, both are legends - especially Minnelli - but neither really struck me as being worthy of the praise they receive for this film on the singing side of things. Minnelli is largely ineffectual and lacks the punch needed for these musical numbers, instead just feeling quite robotic and missing the gravitas necessary to pull of the songs. Fortunately for her, this is not all her fault as some of the song performed in the cabaret are just very bad. Some have great lyrics and melodies, other are just overtly risque for no other value. The former are exclusively songs with Minnelli. The latter are reserved for Grey who is just flat-out grating to watch. He is too exuberant and boisterous. His singing is comically bad throughout and seems to be played out for laughs with his weird lip movements than for any actual singing ability. If people say Gosling is bad in La La Land, then Grey needs his due for being a bad singer in Cabaret. By the end of the film, however, my favorite song was the one not including either of them and given that they were the stars and the main attractions on the musical side, this seems quite alarming.

Second, the editing is quite bad. Just as in All That Jazz, Fosse goes cut happy at points. Jumping rapidly from one image to the next, the film just turns into a blur at parts. While it is supposed to represent the speed at which everything is occurring, it unfortunately has the side effect of rendering those moments entirely unwatchable and distracting. All That Jazz had the same issue with these rapid cuts that distract more than they enhance. It is clearly a style employed by Fosse that simply does not work in my view. While not too plentiful, the moments are bad enough and occur often enough to be worth mentioning. Other than these, the editing is fine. Nothing great and nothing awful. It cuts when it should and is quite cohesive as a final product, but those few moments unfortunately leave a lot to be desired.

In the mixed, not a pro and not a con, section we have the film's sexuality. Openly confronting society's reservations about open sexuality, LGBT persons, and various other sexual taboos, Cabaret is a crucially important film. It shows that those who cross dress, are trans, are gay, are bi, or are lesbians, are just people too. They want to have fun, they cry, they want to love, and they want to laugh all the same. Cabaret, for this, is boundary shattering. It is impressively open about these topics to the point that it may be too much. Mind you, I am not saying it is too risque or that I am a prude. Rather, it feels as though the film tries too hard to push these boundaries. It includes so many topics and, by the end, it feels like the film is just sitting there and judging the audience for not accepting like one of those SNL sketches about high school theatre with the film screaming out, "This is normal and your world view is small." While I agree with its message of acceptance against its backdrop of the rise in Nazism, it feels like it pours it on a bit thick.

On the positive side of things, some songs really stand out. Though I criticized Minnelli and Grey before, allow me to walk some of those comments back in praising some of their songs. For Grey, "If You Could See Her" is beautifully sung, catchy, and incredibly entertaining. It is also thematically relevant with a great take on accepting a person for who they are and not just judging a book by its cover. For Minnelli, "Mein Herr" and "Maybe This Time" are real standouts. The former features solid singing, but tremendous choreography by Fosse. The latter is gorgeously written with a great mournful and longing delivery by Minnelli on the vocal side of things. Yet, bar none, the highlight of the film is "Tomorrow Belongs to Me". Absolutely chilling to watch be sung by a boy in a Nazi uniform and joined in by similar white people, the sequence is brilliantly put together by Fosse and haunting. The singing and lyrics are terrific, but the moment it signifies is the real highlight and shows the perfect blend of music and plot found in the entirety of Cabaret.

The brilliance of this song is similarly matched by Fosse's portrayal of the rise in Nazism in Berlin in 1931. With Jews being threatened and the Nazis constantly present no matter where you go, it is clear that the line of thinking is taking hold. Fosse handles it with grace and turns this portrayal into one of the best ones concerning the rise of Nazism in Germany due to its subtlety. Yes, a song and many lines of dialogue do occur where the Nazis are discussed, but the film's portrayal is defined in images. A man dumped on the side of the road with blood running from him to the sidewalk, a dead dog (WHY KILL DOGS?), anti-Jewish vandalism, and more adorn this film and show the chilling results of hatred. Yet, they are shown in conjunction with how hatred takes power. Early on in the film, the cabaret owner kicks out a man in a Nazi uniform. The man comes back with some Nazi buddies and beat the cabaret owner to near death. At the end of the film, as Joel Grey performs "Finale", we see a few men in Nazi uniforms in the crowd via the reflection of a mirror. It is a chilling image in-and-of itself, but in the context of the film, it comes to represent the general acceptance of Nazis in Germany by this point in time. Though written off as idle threats by men such as Maximillian (Helmut Griem), it is clear the Nazis are becoming more accepted via "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" and the final image of them simply sitting in the crowd. Once rejected by the cabaret owner, they are now allowed into the club out of fear and intimidation, which are the glue to any rise in any authoritarian power. The warnings of Brian Roberts (Michael York) to take the Nazis seriously are well worth paying attention to, just as they are in modern day America with the rise antisemitism, anti-Muslim, nationalism, and other sources of hatred in America today.

Acting-wise, Liza Minnelli and Michael York are both terrific. As the off-the-wall crazy cabaret girl Sally Bowles, Minnelli is a ball of energy but also quite sad. She is open about sex and love, but unsure of how to old onto love for a long stretch of time. She is the quintessential "once bitten, twice shy" kind of girl. Incredibly sympathetic and charming, Minnelli has excellent comedic delivery and dramatic chops in the film and is the perfect foil to York's Brian Roberts. A real fish out of water, he begins a romance with Sally after seeming quite stiff with his British accent and studies at Cambridge. He is the complete opposite of this world of Sally's in Berlin, but he is smart and incredibly brought to life by York. A truly underrated actor, I love York every time I see him and Cabaret is no exception. Alongside Minnelli, he has great chemistry and the two really work well with one another.

With a mixed bag of songs, singing, and perhaps too upfront with its sexuality and taboo shattering nature, Cabaret is an important film for a great many groups of people and it does them terrific justice. Unfortunately, the film is simply too much of a mixed bag for my taste. It has some obvious flaws - Joel Grey, some bad songs, mediocre to bad singing, and moments of awful editing - that really hold it back. Fortunately, a tremendously graceful handling of the rise of Nazism, as well as terrific editing and some great songs propel Cabaret to become a film with more good than bad.

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