Judge Jonathan Weiss can do jazz hands. Ha-tcha!
"I have a problem. Not a big problem; but a problem. It's my name. You see, a lot of people still call me Lisa. Wrong. My name is Liza—with a Z."—Liza Minnelli
Before she became known for marrying men of questionable sexuality and before most people thought of her as a bloated, sauced up druggy, Liza Minnelli was the child of Hollywood Royalty. The daughter of Judy Garland and director Vincent Minnelli, Liza had natural born talent coursing through her veins. She could sing, dance, and act. She won a Tony at age 19 and was nominated for her first Academy Award by the time she was 23, winning the coveted statue in 1972 for Cabaret.
In that same year, Liza teamed up with Cabaret director Bob Fosse for a televised concert. Shot in one night and in one take with an unprecedented, for television, 8 film cameras, Liza with a Z! left an indelible mark on all who watched it and subsequently won four Emmy Awards in 1973.
Once thought lost to the annals of time, Liza with a Z! has made a triumphant return. Lovingly restored, it premiered first at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2003 and it's now released as a lavishly put together Collector's Edition DVD.
So throwing all of those preconceived notions aside here is Liza in her prime, doing what she does best. Will it change your opinion of who this lady is and what she is capable of doing? There's only one way to find out. Dim the lights and press play.
Facts of the Case
Liza Minnelli invites everybody to a barn somewhere on Broadway and puts on a show.
The show begins with a quick glimpse of the energy and excitement backstage with Liza getting her make-up applied. Cut to the audience peppered with celebrities—but you better press pause if you want a good look at who's there because tonight it's all about LIZA baby! And before you know it here she comes, striding on stage, decked out in a white Halston design. The show has begun.
Her pipes are strong. Her dance moves are pure Fosse. And she's got an on-stage ensemble of singers and dancers to accompany her. But will you like it? If you're a hardcore Liza fan, well, the answer is self-evident. But what if you just like her? Or never heard of her? Or are just curious to see this icon of tabloid journalism do her stuff?
If you loved Liza in Cabaret, you're going to love that the show ends with a medley from the show. If you like pop music, you may be surprised with the inclusion of the "Son of a Preacher Man" number. Of course, it may also make you feel like you've just spied your mom trying out her old dance moves at a family wedding (shudder). And if you're interested in performance art you'll be tantalized, stunned, awed, and maybe even a little disturbed by Liza's rendition of "It Was A Good Time." Known as an "acting piece," the song is about the breakdown of a marriage, and when the lights dim and the spotlight hits, and Liza begins singing snippets of classic children's songs in a pained, confused, and teary-eyed way, it's hard not to think that she's reliving experiences from her own past. Chilling.
While watching Liza with a Z! something interesting came to mind. This isn't what you'd typically expect from a televised concert from 1972. Liza isn't just standing in front of a velvet curtain behind some oversized microphone belting out ditties—she puts on a fully realized show. There's story-telling through music, there's choreography, There's back-up dancers, mood lighting, even costume and set changes. In this way Liza's on-stage performance, heavily influenced by Bob Fosse, feels like it could be a precursor to all the live concerts put on by everybody from the Beastie Boys to Madonna.
As far as extras go, well, it ain't called a Collector's Edition for nothing. First off, you get a soundtrack CD of the show itself, which is a really nice touch. Among the other plentiful extras there's Liza's complete A&E biography, a commentary track, the deleted "Mein Herr" number from the Cabaret medley, re-edited from Fosse's notes and seen for the first time, a question and answer panel from the Toronto International Film Festival, and an intimate chat between Liza and longtime composer, mentor, and friend, John Kander.
What was most surprising, especially considering the perception one has of her through her numerous tabloid appearances, was just how engaging and coherent Liza can be. When she hits full storytelling mode one can actually imagine what it must have been like to be at a Hollywood house party in the 50's when Bogey, Bacall, Rooney, Ava, Gene, Bolger, Berle, and whomever else was available, headed over to Judy and Vincent's place to sit around the piano for a night of songs, stories, and laughs.
This edition was obviously put together with a lot of care and a lot of love. Video is dirt and dust free, but the image is definitely soft—which shouldn't come as a surprise having been shot in 1972. The biggest surprise was the sound. Going back and forth between stereo and the new 5.1 mix it is undeniable that the 2.0 stereo is the superior mix. It's far more robust than the surround mix—higher in both energy and clarity. In this case less is definitely a whole lot more.
Love her or laugh at her, there's no denying that Ms. Minnelli had what it took to put on one hell of a show that night in 1972. Furthermore, she had the smarts to own and maintain the rights to Liza with a Z! and hand it over to a very talented technician who restored it to its past glory. She also had the moxy to think that people would want to see it today and managed to get it into two respectable film festivals and release it as an impressive collector's edition DVD. For those reasons alone maybe it's time to reevaluate our opinion of Ms. Minnelli's health and sanity, but when you throw in all the evidence from the extra material presented, it almost removes all doubt. Sadly her choice in life partners continues to remain highly suspect.
Ms. Minnelli is hereby allowed to reclaim her crazy eyelashes from the evidence room and leave this court with her head held high.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Showtime Entertainment
• Bonus Liza with a Z! Soundtrack CD
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