Monday, February 4, 2013

Blu-ray Review: 'Cabaret'

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Somehow it’s been 40 years since the theatrical release of “Cabaret”. The movie won director Bob Fosse an Academy Award, and cemented Liza Minnelli as a full-fledged cultural icon. Picture the star, and the image the appears to most of us is big-eyed pixie Sally Bowles (for which she also took home Oscar) strutting on stage, belting out that final dirge about how life is a cabaret, my friend, to a full-house crowd dotted with khaki shirts and red swastika armbands. To celebrate the milestone, Warner has put together a new Blu-ray book of the musical.

“Cabaret” doesn’t follow your usual musical rules. This ain’t “Glee”, and people don’t break out into song on the street or in the middle of everyday life (this is one major change from the stage production where characters do sing at the drop of a hat). In fact, only one musical number in the entire film—the chilling Nazi Youth sing-a-long “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”—takes place outside the dingy walls of the Kit Kat Klub. The story is more or less a drama that just happens to unfurl in a place where singing is a natural part of the landscape, a nightclub.

Set in the decadent underworld of Weimar-era Germany—the time between World War I and World War II—the story wades into the seedy realm of a dive nightspot full of performers, drag queens, and artists of all ilks. After experiencing the bleak horrors of epic-scale war first hand, large segments of the populace reacted by attempting to move forward through celebrations of life, beauty, and excess. The sets, club, and locations were based largely on period artists like George Grosz and Otto Dix.

Into this world steps uptight, bisexual British writer Brian Roberts (Michael York), who falls in with the flighty Bowles as she bounces from lover to lover, looking for a good time, and the colorful—literally—characters that populate her social circle. Joel Grey won a supporting actor Oscar for playing the Master of Ceremonies, a spastic, surreal little monkey with his fingers in everything. The character has a strange omniscient feel, as if he is the MC of whole world, making his puppets dance and sing.

While much of “Cabaret” plays out like a comedy-infused romance, this bright, manic glee is countered by small moments of stunning brutality, moments that increase in frequency, size, and viciousness as the film progresses. Against the vibrant backdrop of Sally’s world, you watch the rise of the Nazi party as they take hold of the minds and hearts of the German people. This undercuts the film’s bouncy, bubbly exterior, and give ht story an unexpected weight.

Even four decades after its initial release, the political satire in the film, as well as the themes of sexuality, promiscuity, abortion, fascism, and more, still ring as true, and feel as vital and important as ever. More than any offering of its generation, “Cabaret” showed that musicals don’t have to be light and fluffy, that they can tackle real issues in the world, and that influence is still widely felt today.

If you imagine that for a release of this magnitude the studio pulls out all the stops, then you would be correct. Warner has put together a nice little package for to commemorate 40 years of “Cabaret”. The picture, remastered for the first time in more than 20 years, looks bright and crisp on the Blu-ray delivery, and the film is presented in its original aspect ratio (16 by 9 format).

Of all the extras, the best may be the actual book component of the Blu-ray book. You’re given 40 pages of stills from “Cabaret” mixed with information and history of the film. It breaks down the origins and various incarnations of the story, back to Christopher Isherwood’s “Berlin Stories”, that served as the original inspiration. From the beginnings you follow the tale to the stage, the screen, then the stage again, until Fosse’s adaptation ultimately takes home eight Oscars in 1972. It’s an in depth look at an interesting and unique journey.

The disc is also packed with bonus material. There’s a brand spanking new documentary “Cabaret: The Musical that Changed Musicals” that examines the wider impact of the film, and you also get a pair of vintage features “Cabaret: A Legend in the Making” and “The Recreation of an Era”. All of this and more make for strong package, as well as a worthy way to celebrate a classic movie musical.

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