Life amplified: my great movie musical moments

She’s perched on a stool, surrounded by a band in a bar. It’s late, an after hours rehearsal session. When she starts singing she thinks she’s alone. She thinks no one’s listening, apart from the band. She doesn’t know her husband’s listening in the shadows. She’s baring her soul and her regrets; by implication he’s no less exposed. Her singing drenches the screen in their heartbreak. They’re trying to make love work but struggling.

The song is ‘The Man That Got Away’ (written by Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin). She is Judy Garland. Her husband is James Mason. The film is George Cukor’s A Star is Born (1954).

Judy Garland in A Star is Born (1954)
Judy Garland sings ‘The Man That Got Away’ in A Star is Born (1954)

David Denby (film critic, The New Yorker) thinks it the greatest single moment in the history of movie musicals. I think I almost agree.

Earlier this year, Denby wrote an aggressive critique of Les Misérables. He lamented its inadequacies and opined that there’s still hope that the people who love it might discover what a truly great movie musical is. He offers A Star is Born as a good place to start:

‘If you want emotion in a musical, please, if you’ve never seen it, catch the George Cukor version of A Star is Born, in which Judy Garland … produces the single greatest moment in film-musical history. Late at night in a club, when she thinks no one is listening (while James Mason lurks in the shadows), she sings the Harold Arlen torch song ‘The Man That Got Away.’ Overwhelming.’

Elsewhere, writing about A Star is Born for New York (the magazine, that is) in 1983 (on the occasion of the screening of the director’s cut at Radio City Music Hall), Denby remembers the first time he saw this scene:

‘When I first heard it as an adolescent, Judy Garland’s performance of the great Harold Arlen-Ira Gershwin torch song, ‘The Man That Got Away’, overwhelmed me with its sense of adult fatality. It was no less overwhelming more than twenty years later. The opening bars, softly treading yet persistent, are almost voluptuously enticing – gloom gathers quietly in a void of feeling. But then Garland’s voice swells, opening up powerfully at the top (that transition from mezza voce to forte was always thrilling). Standing at the piano, she claws the air, reaching for a climax – all hope gone now, complete abandonment to grief – and when she gets there, it is practically a wail of despair. She never could underplay a scene, and certainly not a song. She always gave it everything she had, and when it went right for her, she produced some of the strongest, truest emotions in American movies.’

Denby says it all here in elegant, persuasive prose. The greatest musical moment – it’s a big call to make. And I can only support his opinion with what makes the moment a great one for me.

Firstly, its riches seem endless. It’s a scene I could watch a thousand times and never tire of. While it’s happening you don’t ever want it to end.

Obviously the key reason for this is the song, written by two of the American songbook’s finest craftsmen – Arlen responsible for such gems as ‘Over the Rainbow’, ‘Get Happy’, ‘Stormy Weather,’ ‘That Old Black Magic’ and ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’ (the latter two with lyricist Johnny Mercer); Gershwin, the lyricist of too many greats to list here with his composer brother George, among which ‘Embraceable You,’ ‘Someone to Watch Over Me,’ ‘A Foggy Day,’ and ‘But Not For Me’ are my favourites.

And every song needs a great voice to give it life. ‘The Man That Got Away’ becomes pure magic through the sheer power of Garland’s voice and the overwhelming nature of her storytelling abilities. I’ve heard other versions (Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright), but it belongs to her, made for her range, revealing something of her. There are very few performers who can rip the guts right out of a song lyric the way Judy Garland could. When she does, she makes it – and this film – all her own.

The scene’s constructed simply but for maximum emotional impact – shot in one continuous take with little movement in the frame apart from Garland. The audience occupies a privileged position – we watch Garland sing but we also see James Mason sneaking in before she gets started. We know what she doesn’t – that he’s sitting in the dark hearing her confession. It’s a larger than life performance but the effect, as Cukor frames it, turns it into a very private moment between two lovers that we’re eavesdropping on.

There’s something colossal at work here – more exuberant and more intense than everyday life.

That’s what a musical should be.

It’s not just a light entertainment. To steal a slogan from Opera Australia, it’s life, amplified.

In his New York piece, Denby is also saying something interesting about what the genre has lost since its heyday. He notes how ‘the spill of [Garland’s] own personality onto Esther Blodgett’s is what gives the movie its special, sweet pathos.’  He adds, of the film as a whole, that ‘this kind of emotionally saturated narrative, with its darkly neurotic compulsions, its cynicism and sentiment, its svelte, easy, inside-show-business knowingness; music of this quality composed freshly for a movie – such glories have all but vanished from the American cinema.’

He won’t get any argument from me on that. They don’t make them like they used to. Now they just make them from stage shows. This is the one thing I felt certain of when I exited the cinema after watching Les Misérables earlier this year. I’d seen much better musical films, most of them produced by MGM in the 1940s and 1950s, and many under the guiding hand of the great producer, Arthur Freed, who had his own musical unit at the studio. At MGM, Freed produced musicals that looked modern. I’m thinking especially of Meet Me in St Louis, Singin’ in the Rain, Gigi, An American in Paris, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Easter Parade and The Band Wagon. I know this is an unfair comparison, I know I’ll never see films like these again. No one, not even Hugh Jackman, can dispute the fact that the glory days of the movie musical are well and truly behind us.

Arthur Freed (at the piano) with director Vincente Minnelli
MGM producer Arthur Freed (at the piano) with director Vincente Minnelli

For those of you who read this blog regularly, you’ll be getting the sense by now that I like quite serious films. But some of my earliest and fondest movie memories are of movie musicals. And one of my earliest is the magical Mary Poppins (1964).

What enchanted me as a child remains true today. I’m still entertained by the songs, the colour and the energetic movement in dance sequences like ‘Chim Chim Cher-ee’. I still look on in wonder and envy when I see Mary (Julie Andrews) and Bert (Dick Van Dyke) and the children take a magical mystery tour inside Bert’s chalk drawings and sing ‘Jolly Holiday’. I still love when the merry-go-round horses come unhinged and join a fox hunt and then a horse race. Who wouldn’t want to clean their bedroom with the assistance of ‘A Spoonful of Sugar’ or be sung to sleep with ‘Stay Awake’? Surely it’s a testament to the alchemy of a great musical that now, as a cynical adult, I’m still a sucker for this one’s many charms.

Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews) and Bert (Dick Van Dyke) take a jolly holiday
Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews) and Bert (Dick Van Dyke) take a jolly holiday

In his evaluation of Les Misérables, Denby writes that the great American musicals were ‘a blessed artifice devoted to pleasure, to ease and movement, exultation in the human body, jokes and happy times, the giddiness of high hopes.’

Happy times and the giddiness of high hopes soaks every frame of an earlier highlight of Judy Garland’s musical career, Meet Me in St. Louis (1944, Vincente Minnelli). Set in the lead up to the 1904 World’s Fair, the 22-year-old Garland is Esther, the second of four daughters in a middle-class family. She’s in love with the boy next door, John Truett (Tom Drake), and it’s his hand she refers to holding ‘till the end of the line’ in the film’s exuberant centrepiece, ‘The Trolley Song.’ This musical number – recorded on set in one single take, unusual then, rare today – zings with effortless, gliding camera work and like the rest of the film pulsates with gloriously rich colour. It’s a lot of fun and what could have just been Esther and some other people taking a trolley ride becomes more, literally moving the narrative forward through song. Meet Me in St. Louis also bestows pleasure in the unadulterated emotion we experience when Esther sings ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ to console her youngest sister Tootie (Margaret O’Brien). That’s really beautiful stuff. You’ll reach for the Kleenex.

Judy Garland sings 'The Trolley Song' in Meet Me in St. Louis
Judy Garland sings ‘The Trolley Song’ in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

A good movie musical also needs a healthy dose of froth. And there’s plenty of that (and champagne) in another of my favourites, High Society (1956, Charles Walters). Based on the play by Philip Barry that gave us The Philadelphia Story (1940, George Cukor), High Society has all the right frothy ingredients – sublime music by Cole Porter, humour, stunning costumes on the always elegant Grace Kelly, the exquisite romantic voice of Frank Sinatra and the star wattage of Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong to boot.

Frank Sinatra seduces Grace Kelly (in one of the most beautiful dresses I've ever seen) with his voice in High Society
Frank Sinatra seduces Grace Kelly (in one of the most beautiful dresses I’ve ever seen) with his voice in High Society (1956)

But for me, movie musicals are also about dance, really good dancing. And for me, no one exults the human body in American film through movement more than Gene Kelly.

Gene Kelly
Gene Kelly (1912-1996) – dancer, actor, director and choreographer
Gene Kelly takes flight
The athletic Kelly takes flight

As a dancer and choreographer, Kelly was without peer in Hollywood during its golden age of musicals. While you’ll get no argument from me that Fred Astaire was the more sophisticated of the two dancers, I believe that Kelly changed how dancing looked (and in turn, felt for us as viewers) on screen. In a Fred Astaire movie, like Top Hat (1935), the dance is captured in full-figure photography with only a little camera movement. In Kelly’s films, dancer and film are more fully integrated than ever before. He made greater use of space and involved the camera in the movement of the dance so that its kinetic nature wasn’t lost on screen. Kelly wanted us to feel the exhilaration of dance up close and personal, as he said, ‘giving each spectator an undistorted and altogether similar view of dancer and background [where] the camera is made fluid, moving with the dancer, so that the lens becomes the eye of the spectator, your eye.’

The dapper Fred Astaire
The sophisticated moves of Fred Astaire (1899-1987)

Kelly effortlessly fused classical and modern dance techniques with traditional American styles such as tap-dancing and jitterbugging. He could do anything. He was muscular and athletic, always seeing a strong link between sport and dance, and often railing against the effeminacy associated with male dancing. The shape of Kelly’s body also determined his dance style. Where the slight Astaire seems light and able to glide over the ground, Kelly’s relaxed style has a lower centre of gravity; he had a more muscular torso and legs that made him seem closer to the ground, earthier, more of an everyman. Kelly said it best: ‘If Fred Astaire is the Cary Grant of dance, I’m the Marlon Brando.’

The very physical Kelly
Kelly’s physicality led him to declare himself ‘the Marlon Brando’ of dance

In addition, Kelly was conscious of class. At a time when most dancing was done in top hats and tails or other evening wear, Kelly insisted on dancing in casual clothes, white socks, loafers and t-shirts. He looked like a regular guy, as he said, ‘I didn’t want to move or act like a rich man. I wanted to dance in a pair of jeans. I wanted to dance like the man in the streets.’ In this way, Kelly democratized dance.

(Sidebar: Cyd Charisse’s husband would always know whom his wife had been dancing with that day on the MGM set. If she came home covered in bruises, it was with the physically demanding Kelly, if not, the smooth Astaire.)

Kelly was also a bonafide romantic leading man – handsome and charming with one of the most amazing smiles I’ve ever seen.

Dancer and handsome leading man
Gene Kelly was also a very handsome romantic leading man

One of my mum’s favourite movie musicals stars Kelly and Frank Sinatra. Because of her, I seemed to watch Anchors Aweigh (1945, George Sidney) endlessly when I was growing up, but that was fine. It features some good music and Sinatra’s beautiful (and completely believable) version of ‘I Fall In Love Too Easily.’ It also contains one of the most famous dance sequences in a movie musical in which Kelly dances with the animated Jerry Mouse (of Tom and Jerry fame). For 1945, this blending of real life with animation is extremely well done.

Gene Kelly dancing with Jerry the mouse in Anchors Aweigh (1945)
Gene Kelly dancing with Jerry the mouse in Anchors Aweigh (1945)

For me, An American in Paris (1951, Vincente Minnelli) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952, Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen) represent the peak achievements of the Hollywood movie musical, in no small part because of Kelly. Both these masterworks are about earlier art forms – French Impressionist painting and silent film – and yet are irresistibly modern.

Both films are sophisticated and colourful and escapist but they also revolutionized the genre. Stanley Donen – choreographer and co-director with Kelly of On the Town (1949) and Singin’ in the Rain – is often credited with transitioning the movie musical away from the Broadway stage setting where the musical numbers were only part of a stage show. In their films the musical numbers are more naturally integrated into the fabric of the story. In Kelly and Donen’s hands song and dance numbers showed us something about character, moved the story forward, endowed it with some emotional truth. Add to this the fact that On the Town – one of Kelly’s three films with Sinatra – was the first musical film shot on location, you can see how these men opened the genre up like never before. And Kelly’s style, strong and expansive, creating mood and building character through dance, was the perfect vehicle for this revolution.

In An American in Paris, Kelly is Jerry Mulligan, a struggling American artist living in Paris. He falls in love with a French girl he meets in a jazz café, Lise Bouvier (Leslie Caron). Built around George Gershwin’s 1928 orchestral composition of the same name, An American in Paris, also has song and dance routines built around other Gershwin songs including ‘But Not For Me,’ ‘Embraceable You’ and ‘Someone to Watch Over Me.’ Two of the film’s most memorable sequences illustrate two distinctive elements of Kelly’s choreographic style.

Kelly frequently used tap and other popular forms to express joy and humour. Teaching the local French kids English to the tune of ‘I Got Rhythm’, Kelly’s dancing in this sequence serves as a microcosm of everything that made him a star. There’s a sense of fun, elegance, and vital physicality. And his easy charm and bright smile makes it fun to watch from beginning to end. He’s enjoying himself and so are we.

'I Got Rhythm' sequence from An American in Paris
Having fun in the ‘I Got Rhythm’ sequence from An American in Paris (1951)

For more serious, introspective moods or expressions of romance Kelly preferred fluid, classical moves. This is evident as Jerry and Lise take their first, tentative steps towards love, in a gorgeous sequence along the River Seine to ‘Our Love is Here to Stay.’ He encourages her to ‘live dangerously’ and although they barely touch, their movements perfectly express what they feel. It’s a very romantic sequence.

Jerry and Lise show us what it feels like to fall in love through their dance to 'Our Love is Here to Stay'
Jerry and Lise show us what it feels like to fall in love through their dance to ‘Our Love is Here to Stay’

Things will heat up later and the dance will reflect this. This happens in the middle of the rather extraordinary 16-minute ballet sequence that closes An American in Paris. Temporarily parted, Jerry imagines he sees Lise all over Paris (including Place de la Concorde, Pont Neuf, Montmartre), in a series of elaborate scenes staged in the worlds of great French painters including Rousseau, Renoir, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec. As Jerry and Lise dance together under the spray from the fountain at the Place de l’Opera, there’s much less caution. As Jerry has told her earlier (not in the dream, but in reality) he will feel her loss deeply and Paris will never be the same:

‘It’s too real and too beautiful. It never lets you forget anything. It reaches in and opens you wide, and you stay that way. I know … Because the more beautiful everything is, the more it’ll hurt without you.’

Kelly at the beginning of the American in Paris ballet sequence
Kelly at the beginning of the 16-minute American in Paris ballet sequence
Love heats up between Lise and Jerry in the ballet sequence
The dancing heats up

The fluidity of the camera and the dancers are in perfect synchronicity. The blues section of Gershwin’s score sees Jerry and Lise get closer and the dancing becomes more intimate and passionate, Kelly’s choreography so sexual in fact you have to wonder how this simulation of physical desire made it by the Production Code’s eagle eyes!

As great as An American in Paris is, there’s a good reason most critics agree that Singin’ in the Rain is the greatest movie musical ever made.

Singin’ in the Rain is a very funny and very clever film. And, as Roger Ebert explains, it’s also a film about something – not just romance but the film industry itself as it goes through a pretty serious transition from silent films to sound. All its parts add up to give you what the original poster promised, ‘a glorious feeling.’

The film’s screenwriters, Betty Comdon and Adolph Green, were originally instructed to write a story using songs that MGM already owned. Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown had written most of these songs, and Freed was of course producing the film. They are great songs, especially ‘You Were Meant For Me’ and ‘Good Mornin’’. But of course it’s the dancing that really makes Singin’ in the Rain unforgettable.

Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds and Gene Kelly say 'Good Mornin'
Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds and Gene Kelly say ‘Good Mornin’ in the great Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Displaying tremendous energy in the 'Moses Supposes' sequence
Displaying tremendous energy in the ‘Moses Supposes’ sequence

It’s dancing with Kelly’s signature robust energy. Kelly and Donen staged a series of sequences that used real props – chairs, tables and kitchen benches, umbrellas. There’s the amazing work by Donald O’Connor as Cosmo Brown in the ‘Make ‘em Laugh’ routine. And the lovely, whimsical magic between Kelly’s Don Lockwood and Debbie Reynolds as Kathy Selden on a lilac and golden backlot as he serenades her with ‘You Were Meant For Me.’ ‘Good Mornin’ is unforgettable for its liveliness and also its extraordinary use of space, moving from room to room in Don’s house without missing a beat. Kelly, O’Connor and Reynolds make it look effortless, but for Reynolds at least, the far less seasoned of the performers, it was anything but, going home at the end of the day long shoot with bleeding feet. One of my favourite scenes has to be the Kelly and O’Connor duet on ‘Moses Supposes’ where they disrupt their diction class with some insanely good moves. And the ‘Broadway Rhythm’ sequence that appears about 3/4 through, which features Kelly as a young hoofer with dreams of Broadway and Cyd Charisse and her magnificent legs as the shady lady who distracts him, is so stunning you don’t even question what it has to do with the plot. Kelly proves that like all great dancers he’s not just an exceptional soloist but a solid partner too.

Dancing with Cyd Charisse and her legs in the 'Broadway Rhythm' sequence
Dancing with Cyd Charisse and her legs in the ‘Broadway Rhythm’ sequence

But of course it’s the film’s title song and Kelly’s truly iconic moment that seals the deal on this film’s status as the greatest of movie musicals. And in the end what matters about the ‘dancin’ and singin’ in the rain’ isn’t even the routine – which is wonderful and never ceases to get me high. What matters is that Kelly dancing around in the rain, using the umbrella, the lamppost, the gutter, the puddles as partners, is expressing something more, using movement to show us about his character. Don’s wet and he doesn’t care because he’s showing us what it feels like to fall in love. The dance is a vehicle for his euphoria, the infectious delight of love that can only be communicated in such a child-like and spontaneous way.

The most iconic dance sequence in the history of the Hollywood musical
The most iconic dance sequence in the history of the Hollywood musical
The dance as a joyful expression of love
The dance as a joyful expression of love

With the release of Singin’ in the Rain, Gene Kelly was a legend at only 40. In 1951 he had been awarded an Honorary Oscar for An American in Paris for his ‘extreme versatility as an actor, singer, director and dancer, but specifically for his brilliant achievement in the art of choreography.’ Hollywood knew he was something special and that in the decade where his career was at its height, he helped create two of its most beloved masterpieces. As Kelly said of his work: ‘We all thought we were trying to create some kind of magic of joy. That’s what you do up there. You dance love and you dance joy and you dance dreams.’ It’s life amplified. Amen.

More than anything, what Kelly dared to do was tell stories with something beyond words. He wanted to create a new cinematic language and in doing this seems to remind us that cinema first told stories by letting a camera follow bodies through space and letting those bodies direct the narrative. And in this way, the movie musical is almost a return to the cinema’s most primitive beginnings. I don’t use the word often, but I’ve always thought Gene Kelly a bit of a genius. I hope I’m not alone in this appraisal.

Evidence of the energy that makes Kelly special is also present in two other exceptional examples of the genre. It’s there in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954, Stanley Donen). And it’s definitely there in West Side Story (1961, Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins). Both films are known for their athletic dancing and West Side Story in particular for its staging of dance sequences in real spaces. West Side Story’s opening shot that pans above New York City and stretches out to it’s west side makes it clear that this film will be played out on the city’s streets. The camera eventually rests on a basketball court where the film’s warring gangs, the Sharks and Jets, are ready to rumble. In the lead up to the ‘Jet Song’ both gangs move through the streets with little dialogue and several eruptions of dance. The extended sequence is shot with innovative camerawork and a fluidity of movement between camera and dancer that confirms the film’s debt to its predecessors. But the dancing here, as in my favourite later scene, ‘Cool’, is electric and wholly original.

Taking it to the streets in West Side Story (1961)
Taking it to the streets in West Side Story (1961)

But my favourite movie musical (which also happens to be one of my all-time favourite films) is a bit of a special case. It wasn’t made in the golden age of Hollywood musicals. It came about (like West Side Story) when the only musicals getting made were taken from stage shows, no original material, no musical unit at any of the major studios. And yet it shares a lineage to the golden age through its star, Liza Minnelli – the daughter of one of its most important directors and brightest stars, Vincente Minnelli and Judy Garland.

Cabaret, first released in 1972, was directed and choreographed by the brilliant Bob Fosse, and signals another revolution in the movie musical. His later, autobiographical film, All That Jazz (1979) is another highpoint of the decade and there’s no denying that these films had a very different tone to the grand dames of the MGM stable.

Cabaret the film, emerged from Cabaret the 1966 stage musical (book by Joe Masteroff, music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb) which in turn emerged from the play, I Am A Camera (1951, by John Van Druten), which has its roots in Christopher Isherwood’s episodic novel, Goodbye to Berlin (1939), set in the decaying days of the Weimar Republic and featuring a character named Sally Bowles.

Liza Minnelli is Sally Bowles in Cabaret
Liza Minnelli is Sally Bowles in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972)

American Sally (Liza Minnelli) lives a carefree, sensual life in Berlin in 1931. She sings at a cabaret, the Kit Kat Klub, a self-contained, decadent world, where as the club’s Master of Ceremonies, or Emcee (played so brilliantly by Joel Grey) tells us, ‘everything is beautiful.’ Sally’s willfully ignorant of politics in Berlin, extravagant in her desires and easily seduced by wealth and her own dreams of stardom. And yet, as Minnelli plays her, with wide-eyed optimism and significant pathos, it’s all too easy to identify something of us in her, which I’m sure is the point. It’s an extraordinary performance that is all about performance, the space between illusion and reality, innocence and experience.

Sally meets the English Brian Roberts (Michael York) when he moves into her boarding house. Brian is a reserved academic hoping to earn some money giving English lessons in Berlin before returning to Cambridge to complete his doctorate. Brian is the camera, the outsider who observes and records what he sees as Berlin is swept up in the uncontrollable tide of Nazism. Sally and Brian become friends and eventually lovers.

Fosse’s Cabaret differs from the stage musical that preceded it in a number of significant ways, including the writing of some original songs especially for the film. But most importantly, Fosse staged all of the musical numbers within the confines of the cabaret (except for the disturbing rendition of ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’ by a Hitler Youth at a beer garden in the countryside). In addition, Sally and the Emcee are the only singers in the film. There are no spontaneous eruptions into song by other characters. Fosse’s musical world is more tightly controlled and these bold choices are in part I think what makes the film so significant and fresh today.

Importantly, each song is integral to the progression of the narrative, effectively moving the plot forward, physically and emotionally, in ways that ten pages of script dialogue would struggle to do. The stage at the Kit Kat Klub is both a microcosm and a metaphor for the world of the film, in both political and personal ways. The songs performed inside often comment on the world outside the club’s gaudy interior. When Sally sings the torchy ‘Maybe This Time’ after she has first slept with Brian we get a whole sense of her history and a window into her vulnerability. The Emcee, in particular, is the film’s storyteller or thematic narrator, and a song like ‘If You Could See Her Through My Eyes’ which he sings to a gorilla (with its final lyric, ‘she wouldn’t look Jewish at all’), take the temperature of the times, dangerously poking fun at the Nazis and hinting at the nightmare unraveling just outside the Kit Kat’s walls.

Sally and the Emcee (Joel Grey) sing 'Money, Money'
Sally and the Emcee (Joel Grey) sing ‘Money, Money’

The cabaret is also a dreamlike space, full of people who seem to be walking through life half asleep. Fascism is on the rise – we see it on the streets in posters and propaganda pamphlets and dead communists. And we see it when the Kit Kat’s owner takes a brutal beating after kicking out a Nazi the night before. Fosse stages this violence with a chaotic pitch, intercut with scenes of the Emcee and the cabaret dancers taking part in a traditional German dance that turns increasingly dark and vicious. But inside, seemingly oblivious, the audience continues to laugh.

Grey’s Emcee is very funny but mostly in that kind of way where you know you’re laughing at something quite discomfiting. His opening song, ‘Wilkommen’ does welcome us to the cabaret and to the film, but is unsettling exactly because it is too perky, too removed from the real world. What he is really inviting us to enjoy is the brutality of this new world order, an order that those of us versed in history know would ultimately claim him, as a Jewish homosexual, as one of its first victims (Sam Mendes’ revival at the Donmar Warehouse in 1993 made this explicit, dramatically ending the show with the Emcee in a concentration camp uniform badged with both a yellow star and a pink triangle).

Emcee and the 'beautiful' Kit Kat Club dancers welcome you to cabaret
Emcee and the ‘beautiful’ Kit Kat Club dancers welcome you to cabaret

I think that Fosse’s masterstroke with Cabaret is the way he reverses the conventional use of space in a musical film. Rather than open it up, he closes it right down so that I’d go so far as to say that there is something quite claustrophobic about the scenes in the cabaret. The dancing style (that particular Fosse style you might know from Chicago) is louche, loose and centered on the pelvis. We rarely see the dancers shot in full. Fosse gives us segments of their bodies, their legs, bums, breasts, arms and feet. During Sally’s singing of ‘Mein Herr’ (the iconic routine with the chairs) there’s little in the way of ‘dancing’ as we traditionally know it. It’s more like a series of poses and Fosse’s camera takes them in from unusual angles. The effect of this dancing in such a confined space is like a direct shock or assault upon our own sense of comfort. If you’ve watched a lot of musicals, this won’t be like anything you have ever seen. More than any other director of dance on screen, Fosse gives us the full spectrum of human emotion, the light and the shade, the bright and the dark, without a concern for decoration or artifice. He makes bodies look sexy but also real, and in their authenticity sometimes even ugly.

The film's second musical sequence, 'Mein Herr' with its original use of space and movement
The film’s second musical sequence, ‘Mein Herr’ with its distinct use of space and movement

All of this is in service to the wider story Cabaret is telling. The Kit Kat Klub is a claustrophobic space because social space itself is narrowing down as the Nazis rise to power. And the people who frequent the club, often unseen, have also closed their eyes to what is going on around them. Only two years after the action in the film, while Berliners seek pleasure and endless entertainment, Hitler will be appointed Chancellor of Germany and then Führer in 1934. The beginning of World War II is just around the corner.

In this context, Minnelli’s finale, ‘Cabaret’, shows the extent to which her character Sally stands for those who kept their eyes closed to what was going on around them. Minnelli’s performance is so powerful and engaging throughout the film, but standing alone on the stage here, Sally takes on a more tragic and nuanced shape. Sally has just had an abortion she describes as one of her ‘whims’ and said goodbye to the man she claims to love who was recently beaten, badly, by Nazis. She sings, holding onto her dreams of being a famous actress, but perhaps with the bittersweet reality that this might be as good as it gets. The song, so often misunderstood as an anthem to the good life, actually reminds us that life is anything but a cabaret. The song’s strength lies in its sadness and hopelessness, which come through in its middle section, when Sally sings about her friend Elsie in Chelsea, the prostitute who died young, and whose life and death she wishes to emulate. Fosse turns the lights off and the spotlight remains on Sally’s face and she then slowly beckons the hidden audience, us, with her long green fingernails, to ‘come, hear the music play.’ It isn’t with the sense of excited anticipation one would expect.

Every time I watch this scene I tear up in this exact same spot, in part, because it reminds me of the conversation Sally has had earlier in the film with the Jewish heiress, Natalia Landauer (Marisa Berenson). Natalia seeks the more experienced Sally’s advice about whether she is in love or merely infatuated with Fritz’s body. Sally says, ‘Does it really matter as long as you’re having fun?’ By the time we get to Cabaret’s conclusion we are more certain than ever of the answer we already knew then, that of course it does. Goodbye Berlin, the party’s well and truly over. There is a price to be paid for not taking life and the Nazis seriously. We, the film audience, know what happens next, and for this reason the song is ultimately very unsettling.

Minnelli sings the unsettling finale 'Cabaret'
Minnelli sings the unsettling finale ‘Cabaret’

As Sally walks off stage, the Emcee walks on to bring proceedings to a close. He concludes, ironically, ‘We have no troubles here.’ He leaves the stage and the camera pans to the right to reflect the cabaret audience back to the film’s audience in a mirror. We are the audience too and Fosse makes us all complicit in the action so it’s like we are looking at ourselves. And what do we see? An audience now riddled with Nazis. The Nazis have claimed the spotlight making it clear that the menace has always been inside the club because we let them in. And that’s where the camera stops. No matter how many times I have watched this film this final moment never fails to chill me to the core.

Emcee farewells us as the Nazi filled audience takes shape in the mirror beside him
Emcee farewells us as the Nazi filled audience takes shape in the mirror beside him

Although highly entertaining, there is nothing conventional about Cabaret – it is the movie musical as morality tale. And yet what connects Cabaret to more conventional musical movie moments like Judy Garland ripping the guts out of ‘The Man That Got Away’ in A Star is Born and Gene Kelly ecstatically singing and dancing in the rain is its emotional pulse. It beats hard. Like all these great movies, Cabaret is brimming with moments that wreak havoc on your emotions. At the beginning of this post I said that for me a great movie musical has to be more exuberant and more intense than everyday life. And that it has to be more than light entertainment – life amplified. Cabaret, located in a time and space we recognize from real life – pre-war Berlin – amplifies this experience for us by narrowing it down to its emotional core. A song can squeeze out more of the truth in feelings like love, fear, desire and despair than any dialogue can ever do. It can distill life to its essence and deliver it back to us on a grand scale. And that’s what stays with us, and if we’re lucky, changes us just a little bit.

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