Musicals: Cabaret (Digibook) – Blu-ray Review
To celebrate the success and eventual home video release of La La Land, as well as the recent resurgence in the popularity of Broadway musicals in mainstream culture thanks to popular musicals such as Hamilton and the like, reDVDit.com is kicking off 2017 by celebrate musicals in film. Our writers will be collaborating on the first fully fledged series of the year, as we revisit one of Hollywood’s most cultured traditions, dating back to the earliest examples of sound in motion pictures. Join us, as we explore a genre that once held a box office draw that parallels the comic book movies of today, and is now essentially extinct: the musical!
The Movie (5/5)
Cabaret, a 1972 adaptation of the Broadway show of the same name, in many ways is the antithesis of the musical feature. It falls into this grey area compared to most musical movies, due to its liberal use of sex and politics for the time period, and because of its musical structure. It stands apart in that it doesn’t feature integrated song and dance numbers outside of a single sequence; the majority take place inside a dark, seedy Berlin night club, and serve as interludes between the actual driving story line of the film. It also breaks tradition in that one of its two leads, the character played by Michael York, doesn’t actually sing at all. Unlike many film musicals of the previous decade, it doesn’t tie up neatly, and love most certainly does not conquer all in the end. It’s the perfect jumping off point for a series on musicals: dark, gritty, and ambiguous. Welcome to Cabaret!
Cabaret tells the story of Brian Roberts, a British academic who travels to Berlin during the early 1930s to teach English to Germans and to complete his doctorate. After moving into the same boarding house where she resides, he falls in with an American girl named Sally Bowles, who performs nightly at a local joint called the Kit Kat Club as a singer. Entranced by her unhinged and often times loose ways, they become fast lovers and set out to take on all that Germany has to offer. This of course, becomes complicated as rich playboy Maximilian von Heurne enters them into an estranged love triangle, straining their relationship. All of this takes place parallel to the slow rise in popularity and power of the Nazi party, whose influence slows begins to take hold of the city around them, as antisemitism begins to plague some of Brian’s students, and violence begins to take hold in the streets as Brian and Sally struggle to figure out what to do with each other.
Up to this point, the majority of musicals features made were meant to be taken in as light entertainment. They focused on love and friendship presented in a thousand different ways, highlighted extravagantly budgeted song and dance sequences, and typically kept things pretty light in order to appeal to the largest audiences possible – similar to the blockbusters of today, they were predictable and rather safe. Even the most ambitious of them, such as The Sound of Music which in its own way dealt with the rise of the Nazis, was still very much a pleasure cruise of a film, light on consequences until deep within its third act. Cabaret tosses that notion aside almost immediately tosses that notion aside, welcoming you into the seedy world of the Kit Kat Club with musical sequences that are overtly sexual, and increasingly politically charged. It wears its ideals proudly through a narrative that explores themes such as the complications of bisexual love in monogamous relationships, the need to conform due to the pressures of society, and of course how a country in disarray is easily swept up into the rhetoric of a political movement that preys on their worst fears. Hell, the film even steps up to bat about the emotional ramifications of having an abortion. Cabaret is many things, but comfortable and safe it is most certainly not.
At it’s core, Cabaret is about the love triangle that forms between Brian (Michael York), Sally (Liza Minnelli), and Max (Helmut Griem), and the destructive habits that their bohemian lifestyles wreaks upon them. Grounded at the center of the madness is Brian, who comes from a conservative English academic life hoping to teach a little English and finish his studies, only to get swept up in Sally’s sexually ambitious, hopelessly whimsical, and occasionally performance driven lifestyle. Their absurd adventures lead them into the hands of wealthy baron Max, who seduces them both and talks big about being able to control the Nazis as political tools, only to run and hide when things start to go south, abandoning them both to the plight of the Nazis. This of course drives a wedge between Sally and Brian, as Sally becomes pregnant while committed to this love triangle, and as a result has no idea who the father is, ultimately destroying whatever chance of happiness she could possibly salvage from her romance with Brian. Although on the surface the film romanticizes such a lifestyle, it ultimately preaches the dangers of such recklessness, portraying it as a bubble that inflates until it pops, suddenly leaving our characters at the hands of a dangerous political party who swooped up power while they, as an analogy for the entire country of Germany, were too busy partying and having sex.
In its B plot, which concerns the relationship that develops between two of Brian’s students, one a wealthy Jewish heiress, and the other a gold digger who yearns to use his charm and improved English to marry into a higher social class, an examination of the slow creep of anti-semitism in German culture is offered. Their romance, which builds slowly over the course of the film is derailed by Nazis anti-semetic intimidation techniques, demonstrated through a vibrant display of violence in an attempt to get her Jewish heiress to flee the country. Together they struggle to fulfill their love for each other as their world decays around them, offering a small glimpse into the reality of the situation brewing in Germany at that time.
Cabaret is a film caked in darkness, both photographically, and in the story it tells. Directed by Bob Fosse, who won an academy award for his work on the film, he chose to cut out all of the integrated musical numbers, confining the song and dance numbers to the dark, seedy interior of the Kit Kat Club, where the Master of Ceremonies (Joel Grey) reminds us that inside the club, life is beautiful, and that the girls are beautiful, and even the orchestra is beautiful. The songs he leads are both upbeat, entertaining, and metaphoric to the climate outside the club as our leads choose to indulge in their pleasures and ignore the society decaying around them. It’s a film that both celebrates and cries out against ignorance through a twisted perversion of the musical feature film.
In the end, every chance Bob Fosse, his actors, and his creative team paid off; Cabaret was a massive financial and critical success upon its release in 1972, resulting in 10 academy award nominations and 8 wins, and a slew of BAFTA and Golden Globe wins. A picture carried by a boatload of strong performances across the board, both Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey won Oscars for the respective performances, cementing their place in cinema history and as the backbone of the misguided adventures that make up the plot of Cabaret. Personally, I find the film to be one of the richest cinema musicals to date, one that is perfectly layered, tightly scripted, and a powerful reminder of the dangers that occur if our society turns a blind eye to the evils waiting just over the horizon. It’s brutal, it’s exhaustively sexual, and leaves you gasping for air as film finally cuts to credits. It’s damn good.
The Video (4.5/5)
Cabaret was shot of 4-perf 35mm film stock using spherical lenses, and cropped to the 1.85:1 aspect ratio for theatrical projection for its release in 1972. The film’s original negatives have since been lost, forcing Warner Brothers, who currently own distribution rights, to utilize an interpositive as a source for the 2012 restoration of the film. This interpositive’s quality had held back previous attempts at HD presentations for ages due to a massive scratch down an entire reel of the film, requiring extensive digital manipulation to properly repair. The film is presented in 1080p, in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio, sourced from this digital restoration of the film.
Cabaret is soft, grainy, and often times lacks any sort of real detail or any texture due to the film’s dark aesthetics and favored nighttime exposures, which is something that film has always struggled to present without losing something to the shadows. Much of the softness and abrasive grain can be accredited I’m sure to the quality of the interpositive used, but I suspect the film has always looked soft and grainy from the very beginning, with or without a negative. The good news, is that the film’s presentation has excellent color, and wonderful, inky blacks to complement the darkness of the Kit Kat Club’s interior, and the nighttime walks through the streets of Berlin. The print has been cleaned to perfection, even in the reel that was notoriously damaged, thanks to the excellent work of the team tasked with the restoration. Cabaret looks as good as it ever will thanks to this restoration, and as long as one adjusts their expectations properly, I think everyone will something wonderful out of this 1080p presentation.
The Audio (3/5)
Cabaret was originally released to theaters in the era just before the big push for stereo sound mixes and stereo presentations in mainstream theaters. As a result, it was originally released to theaters featuring a mono sound mix, which for this release of the film has been expanded to a 5.1 DTS-Master Audio surround mix.
It’s unknown to me at the time of writing whether or not Warner and their restoration team utilized the original recording material to generate this 5.1 sound mix, but being that the film was originally mixed for mono it should come as no surprise that this mix doesn’t exactly blow the roof off your home theater. It’s mostly a dialogue driven film, through the center channel mainly. Occasional sound effects expand to the front stereo channels, but it’s mostly reserved for use during the film’s musical numbers. Even then, it doesn’t necessarily add much to these sequences. Ultimately I would have preferred a lossless presentation of the film’s original sound mix, rather than be betrayed by a weak 5.1 remix.
Special Features/Packaging (4/5)
Given the prestige treatment by Warner Home Video, Cabaret has been released to Blu-ray is a wonderful digibook package. The front cover of the book is a drawing of Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles set against a red spotlight, her leg placed up onto a chair, surrounded by total darkness. A cast listing and the film’s title, drawn as if lit up, resides directly above the tip of her hat. The back features a cropped shot from the film feature Liza again as Sally Bowles, and Joel Grey in character as the Master of Ceremonies dancing on stage against another red spotlight, above credits for the film and legal info for the release. Opening the book reveals a 40 page booklet with full color photos, information about the various versions of the Cabaret story produced over the years, as well as character bios and more, as well as the disc. This release is by far one of my favorite digibook releases put out by a major studio to this day.
Onto the features:
Feature Length Commentary – this release features an audio commentary by Stephen Tropiano, author of a novel about the production of Cabaret. He details a great wealth of knowledge about the history of the film, and it’s production as well as various other tidbits about the film.
Cabaret: The Musical that Changed Musicals – a 30 minute documentary about Bob Fosse, the political climate of the 60s that led to the demise of musicals, and how Fosse’s production brought new life into the musical genre heading into the 1970s.
Cabaret: A Legend in the Making – a 17 minute legacy holdover from earlier releases of Cabaret on home video about the production of Cabaret, and the transition of these productions into making the film. Features many of the higher up people responsible for the production, as well as many of the major actors that participated in the film.
The Recreation of an Era – a 6 minute piece that features on set footage from the film’s production, and discusses briefly how the crew recreated the world of 1930s Germany, complete with retro voice over.
Kit Kat Club Memory Gallery – a large collection of clips from various members of the production, including Liza Minnelli, Michael York, Joel Grey, and many others who discuss shooting scenes in the movie, and other anecdotes related to the film’s production. Held over from an earlier home video release.
Theatrical Trailer – the film’s original trailer in glorious standard definition. Focuses mostly on the Sally Bowles character.
It’s unfortunate that for such a beautifully packaged release, we only really got one new extra, but at the same time it is nice that we have a roundup of all of the previously made available bonus material. There’s a lot here to dissect, especially if one has any interest in Hollywood and Broadway history, and has never owned any previous release of Cabaret.
Technical Specs (click for technical FAQs)
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
DTS-Master Audio 5.1 (English)
Runtime: 124 minutes
Cabaret is not only a personal favorite of mine, but it is easily one of the greatest musical films ever committed to celluloid. Driven forward by a stellar cast, a gripping, mature, sexually ambiguous script and an overall aversion to the things that made musicals so fantastical in the first place, Cabaret is a gripping examination of the attitudes and mindsets that led to the rise of the Nazis in Germany during the 1930s. Warner Home Video has produced a phenomenal Blu-ray, with the visual component based on a restoration that expertly fixes the main visual deformities that have held it back from the spotlight for years, doing it’s best to highlight the best aspects of the existing film materials. The audio is mildly disappointing, and the selection of special features is mostly a retread of old material, but the packaging goes above and beyond, turning this release into something to behold. As the first entry into our celebration and analysis of film musicals, this release is absolutely RECOMMENDED.