‘Liza: A Truly Terrific Absolutely True Story’ Review: Minnelli Docu Benefits From Unseen Footage, Compelling Interviews And The Star Herself – Tribeca Festival

There must be something in the air lately because I have been seeing and reviewing a number of really good and intriguing documentaries on iconic showbiz figures. At Cannes I saw new docus on Faye Dunaway (Faye), Elizabeth Taylor (Elizabeth Taylor: The Lost Tapes) and others on Michel LeGrand and Jacques Demy. Currently on Max you can see a wonderful docu on the great Albert Brooks directed by his longtime friend Rob Reiner, Albert Brooks: Defending My Life.

Add to the list of must-sees in this sector Liza: A Truly Terrific Absolutely True Story, which clearly has the star’s blessing because she is prominently interviewed in it. The focus ultimately on how she became her own person, especially how she managed to navigate the spotlight put on her after mother Judy Garland’s all-too-tragic death caused much speculation that the same thing might happen to her equally talented powerhouse performer of a a daughter. Imagine living in the shadow of not just the inimitable but troubled Garland, but also one of cinema’s greatest directors Vincente Minnelli (Gigi, An American In Paris, Meet Me In St. Louis). As Liza says, “I was born, and they took a picture.”

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The documentary had its world premiere today at the Tribeca Festival.

Director-writer-producer Bruce David Klein has more in mind here than just the typical soup-to-nuts story of a star, a standard docu-biopic as it were. Of course it helps to have your subject actually anchoring the tale in a new interview (as is the case with Dunaway’s full cooperation examining her own story on camera, as well as Taylor, albeit through a recently discovered “lost” interview done in the 1960s). What sets Liza apart is Minnelli’s discovery — somehow — of 25 “never before seen” hours of behind-the-scenes footage taken during a European tour in the ’70s by a crew hired by her then-husband Jack Haley Jr. It just happens to be shot during the prime period of success, heartbreak, addiction, personal relationships and marriages, movies, TV and stage stardom and all the stuff that defined Minnelli as one of the greats of her generation.

Seeing that talent just pop off the screen here, even in bits and pieces, is to be reminded of what a stunning performer she was in her prime. She is 78 now, but after all she has been through, including health battles (not covered here in detail), she is still unmistakably Liza, making this first in-depth look at her life and times a must for fans, and an enlightening showbiz tale even if you aren’t a devotee.

Even though Klein has extensive interview snippets with Minnelli running throughout, it is left to others to really tell her story, and chief among them is performer, music historian and trusted friend Michael Feinstein who turns out to be the glue that really holds this all together in telling the Minnelli story. Somehow keeping this all from being a talking-head-style docu, Klein has the right people on camera with much to illuminate about the subject including BFF Mia Farrow, Jim Caruso, Ben Vereen and Cabaret composer John Kander. They, and especially Feinstein, who is articulate and informed, are compelling to watch as they share stories Minnelli doesn’t.

The film is broken up into eight parts, each focusing on different aspects, perhaps the most poignant moments in talking about her personal need to be loved and an unfulfilled desire to have a family of her own (she had several miscarriages). There is talk that one of her signature songs from Cabaret (the title song is oddly omitted here), “Maybe This Time”, serves as a description of the performer herself as we weave quickly in and out of relationships with Mikhail Baryshnikov, Martin Scorsese, Desi Arnaz Jr, Peter Sellers and then more seriously with husbands Haley, Mark Gero and Peter Allen — the latter where she found real happiness despite discovery of his homosexuality. A later disastrous marriage to David Gest is described less charitably by Feinstein, who quotes Bette Davis as saying, if you have nothing good to say about the dead, don’t say it. “David Gest is dead. Good!” Feinstein cracks.

As a key to getting inside the real Minnelli, Klein focuses on those key figures in her life that she says made her who she was, the ones who “invented” her. There was early mentor Kay Thompson (a consistent figure in the previously unseen footage) who advised her not to “waste time with dull people,” songwriter Fred Ebb, the “French Sinatra” Charles Aznavour, fashion icon Halston, and Cabaret director Bob Fosse. All were responsible in their own ways for taking a raw talent born of famous parents and letting her rise to the top on her own.

Being hounded by paparazzi who wanted “her” — meaning the Liza in the sequins as opposed to who she really was — is covered here as well, as is the more decadent Studio 54 era which she came to define, despite her claim in this docu that there was nothing to the image.

Klein makes great use of all that raw footage as well as generous clips including early shows on stage appearing with her mother, who seems to be almost competing with her daughter in some ways. The movie stardom is featured basically between her Oscar-winning Sally Bowles in Cabaret and making New York New York. Not much is made of the rest of her movies, but there is plenty on her stage and TV triumphs, particularly the special Liza With a Z.

Sister Lorna Luft, co-stars Chita Rivera and Joel Grey, George Hamilton, Darren Criss, makeup artist and close friend Christine Smith, and friends Alan and Arlene Lazare also offer quite a bit of insight from their perspectives. Rivera and Alan Lazare have died since being interviewed and are given special thanks in the end credits.

Overall this is a worthy effort, one that maybe doesn’t tell you a whole lot you didn’t know, but Klein manages to put it all in perspective in a very watchable film about a star who against all odds managed to be, and still is, a survivor, one now ready to tell her own truth.

Producers are Klein, Alexander J. Goldstein and Robert Rich.

Title: Liza: A Truly Terrific Absolutely True Story
Festival: Tribeca Festival (Spotlight Documentary)
Director-writer: Bruce David Klein
With: Mia Farrow, Ben Vereen, Chita Rivera, John Kander, Lorna Luft, Joel Grey
Sales agent: Cinetic Media

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