Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Recent releases Annie and Into The Woods have us thinking about our favorite film adaptations of Broadway (and off-Broadway) musicals.
Winner of eight Academy Awards, Bob Fosse’s Cabaret gazes upon the rise of Nazism in 1931 Berlin with a devilish smirk, its grinning cynicism embodied by the Kit Kat Club’s pale-faced, cross-dressing Emcee (Joel Grey). Devoid of a backstory or a subplot to call his own, Grey’s Emcee instead serves as the mysterious master of ceremonies at a revue where lust, greed, deviance, and intolerance are all roundly satirized in one show-stopping musical number after another, even as the film’s tone veers madly from mockery to maudlin, and the target of its tunes’ ridicule becomes hazy. No matter: From the boot-stomping Third Reich faithful, to the quiet locals too timid (or bigoted) to object to Hitler’s rise, to the foreigners trying to make heads or tails of this environment (and their own lives), everyone and everything is subject to scorn in Fosse’s deliriously choreographed grotesquerie. Here, glitz, glamour, and the brilliant sparkle of the stage’s spotlight aren’t enough to mask the pain and ugliness lurking beneath the surface.
Rather drastically overhauling its Broadway source material—by replacing old songs with new ones, and rewriting various narrative threads (so that they more closely align with the Charles Isherwood stories that were the play’s basis)—Cabaret concerns the romance that forms between American wannabe-starlet Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli) and British tutor Brian (Michael York). That affair soon becomes a threesome with the arrival of wealthy Max (Helmut Griem), though the focus remains on Sally throughout, as personified by the mesmerizing Minnelli with a heartbreaking mixture of song-and-dance gusto and trembling frailty. Sally’s gaze is so fixated on a future of fame and fortune that she willfully blinds herself to the Nazi terror taking over, even when directly confronted with it during a trip to the country that ends with her, Brian, and Max watching rural folk swell with nationalist pride via a sing-along to “Tomorrow Belongs To Me.” Alternately sly, scary, and sorrowful, it’s a great, ghoulish panorama of people greeting the beginning of the end (of their loves, of their futures, of their way of life) with both tears and a nightmarish leer.
Availability: Cabaret is available on Blu-ray and DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix or your local video store/library, and to rent or purchase from the major digital services.