Berlin in the 1920s. American Chanteuse Sally Bowles has a fling with bisexual British writer Brian Roberts and tries to carve out a career as a gold-digger, putting the moves on a handsome aristocrat, while the ascendant Nazis put a crimp in their madcap lifestyle.
As Germany swings darkly through the inflationary 1920s and brownshirts take over the streets, Minnelli's emigre entertainer Sally Bowles waves her painted fingernails ('divine decadence') and does weird jazz with venomous MC Joel Grey.
Christopher Isherwood's autobiographical Berlin stories (previously filmed as I Am a Camera, with Julie Harris as Sally) were turned into a play and then a Broadway musical, and are here wrestled into movie shape by chreographer Bob Fosse, who contributes an incredible razzle‑dazzle which landed the film up to its rolled stockings in Oscars. It tries a little too hard to cross The Gold Diggers of 1933 with The Rise of the Third Reich to be comfortable, but stands as a hugely enjoyable, occasionally chilling, musical.
The terrific score by John Kander and Fred Ebb includes showstoppers like 'Cabaret', 'Money Makes the World Go Around', 'If You Could See Her Though My Eyes' and, as repopularised by Spitting Image's Margaret Thatcher in the late 1980s, the second most-famous Nazi anthem (after ‘Springtime for Hitler’) written by Jews, 'Tomorrow Belongs to Me'.
Few movie musicals since the Busby Berkeley days have managed so well the trick of presenting musical numbers as self-contained set-pieces - sketches rather than pop videos - that comment upon rather than advance the 'story'. Liza Minnelli, whose subsequent career was been spotty at best, gets her one great moment centre-screen in a Louise Brooks haircut and fabulous ‘20s fashions, while the face-painted, sing-song Grey is amazing as a cross between Leonard Sachs, David Bowie and Dracula.
Winner of eight Academy Awards, this holds up as a great musical of style and sleaze. Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey are electrifying; director Bob Fosse's choreography and the camera work are scintillating.