Start by admitting, from cradle to tomb, it isn’t that long a stay.
Remember the musical? Remember Gene Kelly dancing in the rain? Remember the romantic escapades and dashing love affairs carried on behind the scenes of the big Broadway show? Remember going out as a chorus girl and coming back as a star? Right; forget all that.
Optimism and joy are cornerstones of the musical or at least they used to be. Think of a bleak musical from the 1930s. 1950s. Can’t do it. But then come the sixties and the decline begins with West Side Story in a big, big way; it’s a musical with a heart of absolute tragedy. The logical next step is this, the existential musical. Tragedy would be too good for these people. This musicical is tawdry, disgusting, sickening; it is cynical despair riding a red hot beat.
Fosse rides a strange line with this contradiction. He has a great eye for staging. Mein Herr is performed with great simplicity (girls with chairs), but it works and works tremendously. And the music is legitimately rousing; Cabaret is a fantastic song in its own right and the instrumental Sitting Pretty is red hot jazz. But surrounding these moments of real musical joy and exuberance is a story as bleak and nasty as anything.
If the hyper sexualized lives of show biz performers is laughed at in films like 42nd Street and romanticized in Singin’ in the Rain, here it’s degraded and shown in all its moral vacuity. The Master of Ceremonies is devastatingly well played by Joel Grey; he is hilarious, he is pitch perfect, he is entertaining. But you also would not want to meet him in a dark alley. And that’s key to the film’s stance, I think.
Likewise key is the final song, the title number, belted out by Minelli like she’s trying to blow the roof off. When she struts away from the camera, singing, “But as for me (HA!), but as for me,” her hair bounces in a hypnotic and beautiful way that seems to spray joy like water. But in the close-ups, there’s only dark desolation in her eyes. Thus, there’s a brilliant dichotomy; hearing the song on the soundtrack is energizing and thrilling; seeing it on film is painful and disturbing. The song, to throw in a cheap reference, remains the same. But it’s our awareness of the darkness at Sally Bowles’ heart that changes the meaning of it.
Minelli is brilliant here. Watch her in the moments after she’s decided against having the baby. The way she splays her fingers when Michael York begs to know why, the way the camera snaps out of focus when she sits up in bed, so sharp is her pain. This is a woman of incredible, terrifying amorality. Or at least that is the facade; she’s played at times winsomely, for laughs. But by the time the film wraps up, you realize just what kind of a woman this really is and you tremble. Has she grown up? No, and what’s worse, she’s had the chance and has chosen to regress. Does she eschew her ridiculous dreams of being an actress after finding she’s pregnant? She does and you have a moment of hope, but just that quickly, the next day, the child is dead and she’s back to wanting to “be somebody.”
To Grey goes the film’s final moment and it’s a disturbing and unsettling moment, a jerky bow that is far too violent, far to abrupt to feel human at all. The songs are stunning, yes; Mein Herr, Money Song, Cabaret, If You Could See Her, these are great songs and great music and great staging. But don’t be fooled. For all the joy radiating from the screen when Sally Bowles dances, there’s pain, deep darkness and a terrible pragmatism underlying her character.
In the end, we’re left with a slightly discomfiting feeling; even as Nazism rises, we feel that Sally, that Brian, that Maximillian, that the Master of Ceremonies, that they have all gotten what they deserved. And that, truly, is a fate so terrible as to be wished on no one.
5 out of 5 stars.