Some of popular music’s most important artists released albums in 1972, with classics from All the Young Dudes to Young, Gifted and Black. It was the year of “Burning Love” and “Coconut” and “Goodbye to Love” and “Superstition.” Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” won the Grammy for Record and Song of the Year, while Helen Reddy won Best Pop Female Vocal for “I Am Woman” (and, in one of those stupid selections the Grammys love so much, the Album of the Year was The Concert for Bangladesh).
And here I am, amidst all that goodness, writing about a movie musical. And I’m not writing much, because the video links tell so much of the story on their own. Suffice to say that I think Cabaret is one of the two or three best film musicals of all time, and I’ll forgive Liza Minnelli anything because of her Sally Bowles.
Having said that, I’d say the biggest problem with Cabaret comes from the casting of Minnelli. She is divine, of course, but perhaps too much so … it takes a huge suspension of disbelief to accept Minnelli as a third-rate cabaret artiste in the Kit Kat Klub. Oh well, I can handle it. (For some reason, none of today’s YouTube links allow embedding, so links is all you get.)
Some of Cabaret’s songs have become inspirational classics, but the truth is, the songs are a depressing lot:
The songs are ironically funny at their brightest:
But they are never able to lift the characters out of the pit within which they live: Germany during the rise of the Nazis. We’re not talking “Springtime for Hitler” here.
The Nazis are taking over, and the cabaret is losing its ability to offer escape (if, indeed, escape was ever possible). When Sally sings that life is a cabaret, she’s talking about a third-rate cabaret filled with Nazis. She thinks of Elsie, “the happiest corpse I’d ever seen.”
Cabaret was never a part of that god-awful tradition, the “rock musical” … it isn’t Hair, it’s not Jesus Christ Superstar, not Godspell or Grease. But I would argue that it was very much in line with certain strains in the rock music of the day. Its themes of decadence, bisexuality, and artificial glamour connect it to Glam Rock. Lou Reed, no stranger to decadence or bisexuality, came out with Berlin in 1973, and it sounds nothing like Cabaret, but addresses some of the same themes (arguably in a more ham-fisted manner). No matter. Cabaret is a lot more powerful than The Concert for Bangladesh.