Within the first half hour of the multiple Oscar-winning film Cabaret, there’s a brief moment in which a young British man new to Berlin (played by Michael York, so fresh and tightly wound his skin shines) visits the Kit Kat Club, a grubby Weimar Republic hot spot. He finds himself in the men’s restroom and, as he stands at the urinal, he notes that a statuesque “woman” in a frizzled blonde wig and party dress is standing at the one beside him. Brian keeps his obvious surprise contained and then, furtively, glances over and down to check out this person’s equipment.
My partner, watching the film beside me, couldn’t contain himself and said with eyes wide, “I didn’t realize this movie was so envelope pushing. Even for today.”
And he’s right. The movie feels ahead of our time. In current films, this scene would be played for gay panic laughs or as brushstroke sign of the cabaret’s frightening decadence. But director Bob Fosse lets his scene play without judgment, sexually exciting, humanely funny, a little dangerous and above all else real.
Cabaret is a “real” movie musical — gritty, believable and yet thrillingly entertaining — and the smashing new Blu-ray released this month by Warner Brothers for the film’s 40th anniversary makes this point even clearer. Beyond the solid transfer of the original film, a new featurette included on the disc Cabaret: The Musical That Changed Musicals takes us inside Fosse’s bold process with particular focus on his decision to not include any musical numbers that aren’t taking place on a stage (except for one important exception)…to make the musical “real.” I take issue with those who lazily site the success of this choice — and its repurposing in Chicago — as evidence that no one can accept a “traditional” musical where people sing to each other anymore (hello, Les Miz and its $150 million in the U.S. box office), but for Cabaret, the decision was perfectly marvelous.
Also shockingly good: the Oscar-winning performance by Liza Minnelli. Every pop culturists who uses her as nothing more than a punchline should be plunked down in front of this Blu-ray immediately. She is fiercely funny and magnetically insecure, a little girl trying to play at being bad – blind to the fact that real “bad” is coming for her. It’s a performance that stands at the top of the list of work in movie musicals, like a soul baring companion piece (though in no way secondary) to her mother’s bravura work in A Star is Born. In fact, if there’s one quibble I might have with the film, it is that Minnelli is so good in the musical numbers (she was born to dance Fosse choreography, all angular and show biz) that one questions how Sally Bowles isn’t plucked out of the Kit Kat and given the stardom she craves.
The set also includes an informative booklet, a commentary track from author Stephen Tropiano and filmed reminiscences by the cast that were included on an earlier DVD release. It’s a strong set but nothing compares to the movie itself – bold, entertaining and defiantly ahead of its time.