Sunday, July 14, 2024

“LIZA: A TRULY TERRIFIC ABSOLUTELY TRUE STORY”

THE STORY – “Truly Terrific Absolutely True Story” were the words Liza Minnelli used in her iconic introduction for the song “Ring Them Bells” at her 1972 New York concert. Born with a spotlight on her life, Liza’s story has never been told absolutely or truly. From the speculation that her beloved godmother Kay Thompson’s “Eloise” series was about her to the gossip rags that hounded her for decades, many were searching for insight into the talented and charismatic performer, but few got it right. This equal parts eye-opening, thoughtful and hilarious documentary is here to correct that, with Liza getting to tell her story in her own words.

THE CAST – Liza Minnelli, Mia Farrow, Ben Vereen, Chita Rivera, John Kander, Lorna Luft & Joel Grey

THE TEAM – Bruce David Klein (Director/Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 104 Minutes


Few people who have ever lived have had the spotlight shone on them so harshly at such a young age as Liza Minnelli. The talented, charismatic daughter of the legendary performer Judy Garland and the legendary film director Vincente Minnelli was destined for greatness, and everybody expected it from her as soon as she was born. But, when her mother tragically died, Liza was still in her early twenties, just figuring out who she was as an artist. Bruce David Klein’s documentary, “LIZA: A Truly Terrific Absolutely True Story,” tells the story of how Garland’s daughter became the iconic “Liza with a Z,” as she herself experienced it. She didn’t experience it through the projects she worked on or through the struggles that pushed her, but through the people she surrounded herself with, a fact that makes the film even richer. This is not just a film about Minnelli; it is also a tribute to some of the greatest artists of the 20th century.

Klein organizes the film into sections, each linked to a lesson that Liza had to learn in her journey of becoming the woman she is today. Most of them came from her mentors, the artists who taught her the finer points of her craft as well as how to live in this world. There’s Kay Thompson, the godmother who took her under her wing after Judy’s death. Then, Charles Aznavour, the Frank Sinatra of France, taught her how to tell a story through song. Fred Ebb was the lyricist who wrote the parts Minnelli is most known for onstage. Bob Fosse was the director who pushed her to an Emmy and an Oscar in the same year (and for whom she did the same). And then there’s Halston, the designer who created her iconic look. These cultural mainstays of midcentury America all taught her vital lessons and even gave her some of her personality. In never-before-seen footage recently unearthed from Minnelli’s 1970s European tour, home videos, and archival footage, we see her in public and private moments, completely unguarded and in the midst of performance. The transformation over the early years of her career is astonishing to watch even now, but what makes it more compelling is seeing Minnelli intently watch and listen to the people around her. How she hangs on Thompson’s every word or how she looks at Aznavour (he described their relationship as “more than friends but less than lovers”) communicates everything about how she felt about them.

Good times and bad times, she’s seen them all, and Minnelli is still here and is just as much of a pip as you’d guess. She may be self-deprecating about certain aspects of her personality, but that doesn’t mean she won’t stop the documentary crew’s setup to make sure their camera is at the exact right angle. “I’m Vincente Minnelli’s daughter; what are you gonna do?” she laughs afterward, as much of a dare as an explanation for her behavior. After all, she’s been through, you can hardly blame her for not really caring about anything, and her honesty about nearly every subject is entertaining. The very few subjects she won’t let herself be as candid about  – sure, Liza, there were no drugs at Studio 54, whatever you say – are elaborated upon by the impressive roster of other interviewees.

Minnelli credits her artistic mentors with her success, even going so far as to say that what she was “really great” at was picking the right people to be around. This leaves it to her friends, all of whom know different aspects of her life, to tell her side of things. Each talking head has a different relationship with her, each offering different perspectives on her career, relationships, and personal struggles. From long-time friend (and pre-school classmate) Mia Farrow to cabaret star and Minnelli’s archivist Michael Feinstein, from former boyfriend Ben Vereen to “Cabaret” co-star Joel Grey, from renowned designer and former Halston apprentice Naeem Khan to Ebb’s music writer John Kander, and from her half-sister Lorna Luft to her closest friends in Manhattan (a former dentist and his wife), every single participant has something unique and often entertaining to say.

The importance of Minnelli’s friends participating in the film only grows more apparent as the film goes on. When she says in the film’s opening that she is good at picking people to be around, she doesn’t only mean on an artistic level. Every interview in “LIZA” is suffused with love, the same love with which Liza speaks about her mentors. She has always been effusively emotive, constantly giving of herself to others. But, when it comes time to talk about the dark periods of Liza’s life – the alcoholism, health scares, David Gest – it’s her friends who helped her through, and, through their warm, candid interviews, we see why she chose to be around them. The beautiful thing about this “Truly Terrific Absolutely True Story” is how Klein manages to tell us about his subject while shining the spotlight on those around her. No person is an island; we’re all made by the people around us. The people Minnelli had around her deserve films of their own, but it’s beautiful that she turns a documentary about her into a documentary about them. And, according to everything on display in “LIZA,” there’s no way to better capture her spirit.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - A thorough investigation of the forces that shaped Liza Minnelli into one of the greatest entertainers who ever lived, with some incredible never-before-seen footage.

THE BAD - Anyone looking for more insight into specific projects will leave somewhat disappointed.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - None

THE FINAL SCORE - 7/10

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Dan Bayer
Dan Bayer
Performer since birth, tap dancer since the age of 10. Life-long book, film and theatre lover.

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Latest Reviews

<b>THE GOOD - </b>A thorough investigation of the forces that shaped Liza Minnelli into one of the greatest entertainers who ever lived, with some incredible never-before-seen footage.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>Anyone looking for more insight into specific projects will leave somewhat disappointed.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b>None<br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>7/10<br><br>"LIZA: A TRULY TERRIFIC ABSOLUTELY TRUE STORY"