Appellate Judge Tom Becker hopes this review drives you wild with desire.
Everybody loves a winner.
Usually, a Blu-ray release of a classic film—unless it's a household-name classic, like Gone with the Wind—doesn't warrant a whole lot of attention outside of announcements on Web sites. The Blu generally consists of some upgraded tech (often, marginally upgraded) and a few supplements ported from the DVD release; occasionally, a new supplement is tossed into the mix.
For the release of Cabaret (Blu-ray), Warner Bros. and TCM have gone a different route, making it an event.
Cabaret was screened at New York City's Ziegfeld Theater on 31 January 2013, nearly 41 years after it premiered at that same theater, the newly-restored print making it seem impossible that the film was over four decades old. In addition to the screening, TCM's Robert Osborne hosted a brief discussion with the stars of the film: Liza Minnelli, Joel Grey, Michael York, and Marisa Berenson. I believe the four had made other appearances, and they also have done interviews on television and with the press promoting this release.
Excuse my lack of objectivity as I step away from the reviewer role for a moment, but this was an awesome event.
Having the cast together for a Q&A with Osborne? Awesome.
Being part of a Minnelli-worshipping audience that was so thrilled and appreciative that it was infectious? Awesome.
And finally seeing the film in a theater with a stunning print that was light years away from the subpar prints used for the previous DVD releases—the restoration cost over a million dollars and took nearly two years to complete? Awesome.
The one question for me is: Did attending this screening cloud my objectivity?
On the one hand, you couldn't ask for a more optimal viewing experience: big screen, new print, Liza Minnelli and company, and an enthusiastic crowd that applauded every number like it was live theater. So, yeah, I might be a little more thrilled than if I just watched it at home.
On the other hand, I've always considered Cabaret to be a masterpiece.
And this Blu-ray just confirms it.
Facts of the Case
Berlin, 1931. The Nazi party is on the rise. Germany is changing in dangerous ways. But American singer Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli, Arthur) doesn't pay politics any mind. She spends her nights entertaining at the Kit Kat Klub, and her days…well, Sally is never at a loss for something to do.
Into Sally's orbit comes young Englishman Brian Roberts (Michael York, Logan's Run), who moves into the boardinghouse where she resides. While Brian "doesn't sleep with women," he finds himself taken with the beguilingly bohemian Sally; they become lovers.
Sally and Brian get to know Fritz (Fritz Wepper, OSS 117: Lost in Rio), a young German who's content living the party life—until he falls in love with Natalia (Marisa Berenson, Barry Lyndon), who's beautiful, rich…and Jewish. In a nation that still hasn't fully recovered from the humiliation of the First World War, Jews are increasingly being scapegoated as the reason behind the failures of German society.
Then, Sally meets Maximilian (Helmut Griem, The Damned). He's wealthy, fun, a bit decadent—and he likes both her and Brian. Sally likes his money; Brian just doesn't trust him at all, and as they spend more time together, Maximilian lavishing them with gifts and comforts, their three-way relationship gets more complicated.
But when things become too complicated for Sally, she can always retreat, right back to the cabaret, where life is beautiful—at least according to the sinister MC (Joel Grey, Man on a Swing) who presides over it. And where Sally barely notices the increasing appearance of swastikas in the midst of all that "beauty."
"Landmark." That's the word I've heard applied to Director Bob Fosse's masterpiece, Cabaret, and a good word it is.
While there were a few successful musicals made between The Sound of Music (1965) and Cabaret (1972), there were an awful lot of "misses"—Camelot, Finian's Rainbow, Hello, Dolly, and Paint Your Wagon were traditional, big-budget affairs that ended up driving nails into the coffin of what had once been a life-blood genre of film that was, in the late '60s and early '70s, on life support. Frothy films in which characters randomly burst into song had fallen out of favor in these more cynical times.
Then, along came Bob Fosse, whose previous effort—Sweet Charity—had ended up as one of those coffin nails. Based—albeit loosely—on a Tony-award winning musical, Cabaret was anything but frothy, and as stripped down by Fosse, it was barely a musical. Fosse's idea was to further de-musicalize it by removing scenes in which characters burst into song—or burst into production numbers—by limiting almost all the music to scenes in the Kit Kat Klub. Thus, we don't have characters randomly singing songs about their thoughts and emotions; instead the Kit Kat Klub numbers comment on the action, or in Sally's case, reflect what she's thinking. Her first big number, for instance—"Mein Herr"—tells us so much about the character, and basically plots out how her relationship with Brian is going to evolve and end.
Of course, a story about the rise of the Nazis is already pretty froth-free; add to that characters who were confused, desperate, and a little pathetic, songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb that are brilliantly dark, ironic, and dangerous, and an intense and innovative director, and you have a provocative and startling masterpiece, a stylish and stylized work of art that's so engrossing and kinetic that it's not until the final credits roll that you realize just how downbeat and despairing it all really is.
Fosse's visual instincts were revelatory. He employed a dizzying array of edits, rhythmic cuts, and tableaux to create a mosaic of context. The frequent cross-cutting—for instance, between a musical number involving slapping and a man being beaten by Nazi thugs—is dazzling. Images fly by so quickly they sometimes barely register on a conscious level, only to be complemented later by others. This isn't passive viewing: it's thrilling, it's exhilarating, and it's wrenching.
Sally Bowles, of course, is Minnelli's signature role, and the actress and character are forever linked. Her casting was criticized—including by Christopher Isherwood, whose book introduced the character—because she's too talented a performer; Sally Bowles was supposed to have been a pretty lousy singer who imagined herself a star and was stuck at the Kit Kat Klub because there was nowhere else for her to go. But the fact that Minnelli is so talented actually adds another poignant level to the characterization. Sally will never amount to anything more than a featured singer at a sleazy club despite all her talent. She hasn't the stability or the discipline to do anything more with her gifts. She is all artifice and no art, destined, we surmise, for an obscure and lonely end.
She is also all bombast, the loudest and most flamboyant person in the room. Everything about Sally is BIG—every word, every gesture, every moment, every pronouncement; there are no silences around Sally, no moments for thought or introspection. At one point, she goes out for an important evening. Later, when Brian comes home to the boardinghouse, he finds Sally sitting in the front room, devastated: her evening didn't go as planned, and a story she's told everyone about her life—and likely convinced herself is true—has turned out to be just another part of the act.
But when Brian finds her, she's not alone. Another resident is there, sleeping and snoring. And Sally's not sitting quietly; she's whistling. Even at a time when you'd expect her to embrace the quiet and the solitude, she's running from it.
She's only fully alive and engaged when she has an audience that's not going to question her pretenses. On stage, she's everything she isn't in real life—confident, connected, truly enticing, not a vulnerable, lonely woman. Protected by the footlights and the makeup she wears like a mask, she becomes the image she deludes herself into thinking she is. But pay close attention when she sings, particularly the ebullient title song, and you'll see some things you might not expect: terror, desperation, an aching to be embraced that goes beyond a performer's need for approval.
Minnelli is simply stunning, deserving of all the praise and honors she's received. Her Sally has a lived-in feeling, a weariness beneath the perky, devil-may-care façade. It's a performance that is both exciting and heartbreaking, and I don't think anyone else could have come close to bringing this character to life.
This isn't to shortchange the rest of the cast. Grey deservedly won an Oscar as the MC—who has no dialogue off the stage but conveys so much through the musical numbers—and his scenes with Minnelli give off a kind of venal electricity. York is kind of the unsung hero here, offering a strong but subtle performance in the decidedly un-showy role of Sally's best friend and consort. York's open-faced good looks and quiet level-headedness serve the character well, but like everyone else (except Grey), he's overshadowed by force-of-nature Minnelli. Berenson is touching as the proper and practical Natalia, and Griem suitably creepy as the hedonistic Maximilian.
Cabaret has the distinction of winning the most Academy Awards (8) without taking Best Picture. Besides Minnelli (Best Actress), Grey (Supporting Actor), and Fosse (Best Director, memorably upsetting Francis Ford Coppola for The Godfather), the film won in a bunch of technical categories, including cinematography, editing, and sound. While it might not be as entrenched in American movie culture as, say, The Godfather, it has a passionate following, which makes it a little surprising that it's taken so long to get a worthwhile home video release.
Cabaret's previous DVD outings weren't exactly something to sing about. Its first release was a non-anamorphic disc with a marginal image; the second also featured subpar tech, but included some decent supplements.
Warner Bros. wipes away the memories of those unfortunate earlier discs with a top-notch Blu-ray that finally acknowledges the film as a classic.
There was significant and necessary restoration done to the print. The original print had been damaged, and the restoration was painstaking, taking a lot of time and a lot of money, but it was worth every penny and every minute invested. It's really a phenomenal image. Every frame just seems to glow and is presented as we'd expect Fosse intended it. Detail and contrast are near perfect, from the dark, smoky Kit Kat Klub, to the crystal-bright outdoor beer garden (which featuers the only song not performed in the cabaret and stands as one of the most chilling scenes ever committed to film). DNR is handled lightly; there is no waxiness or smearing, and a fine, sometimes imperceptible film grain is apparent throughout. This really is a superlative image, lovingly crafted, and it does justice to this extraordinary film.
Audio has been remastered in a very strong DTS-HD surround track. There is absolutely no hiss or distortion; this sounds like it could have been recorded yesterday.
For supplements, Warner Bros. ports over everything from the previous releases and adds some excellent and meaningful new stuff.
Cabaret (Blu-ray) comes packaged with a beautifully illustrated, 40-page Digibook. The essays trace the history of Cabaret, from Christopher Isherwood's book (Goodbye to Berlin), to John Van Druten's play (I Am a Camera), to the Broadway musical, to the film. There are bios of the actors and Fosse, wonderful photos, and a critical essay on the film. This is much heftier and more satisfying than some other Digibooks I've seen.
New to this edition is a commentary by Stephen Tropiano, author of Cabaret: Music on Film. This is a nice addition. Tropiano is, of course, knowledgeable, but he's also engaging and interesting to listen to. There's a lot of background and trivia here.
Also new is a documentary, "Cabaret: The Musical That Changed Musicals." Running nearly half an hour, this featurette focuses on Fosse and his creative process in making the film. It offers a wealth of information, with input from Minnelli, Grey, York, Kander, some of the dancers from the film, Rob Marshall (who choreographed and co-directed the 1998 revival, plus the film version of Fosse's Chicago), Fosse biographers (including Tropiano), actress Bebe Neuwirth (who starred in the Broadway revival of Chicago), Ben Vereen (who starred in Fosse's Pippin on Broadway), and others who knew Fosse and/or worked on the film.
Ported from an earlier release is a second documentary, "Cabaret: A Legend in the Making." Created for the 25th Anniversary (1997), it's a pretty great "making of" that features Minnelli, York, Grey, Kander, Ebb, producers Cy Feuer and Martin Baum, and screenwriter Jay Presson Allen, and includes behind-the-scenes footage, alternate takes, and camera tests.
By the way, it speaks to the quality of the supplements that there's not a lot of overlapping information between "A Legend in the Making" and "The Musical That Changed Musicals."
"The Recreation of an Era" is a vintage promotional featurette that offers up a bit of "behind the scenes" footage of Fosse.
"The Kit Kat Klub Memory Gallery" consists of a bunch of short interview clips (they average around a minute each) of various members of the cast and crew sharing anecdotes. These look like outtakes from the "Legend in the Making" featurette.
Rounding out the set is the original trailer.
Frankly, this is a very well put together set of supplements that offers as complete a picture as I can think of about the film and the people behind it.
Cabaret isn't just one of the great movie musicals; it's one of the great movies. Warner Bros. more than makes up for the lackluster previous releases with this definitive edition. This Blu-ray sets the bar high for future classic releases.
Highest recommendation; a must-own.
A spectacular film gets a spectacular Blu-ray—a model of how an important film should be treated.
And not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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