The other week, syndicated gossip columnist Liz Smith shared this juicy bit of information with her readers: “Don’t ask how I did it, but I recently obtained a copy of Liza Minnelli’s ‘Liza with a Z’ live concert, televised back in 1972. This Bob Fosse-directed special has never been available on VHS or DVD…The condition of my tape was not pristine, but Liza’s performance is…I think now in this age of DVD special editions, it’s time for ‘Liza with a Z’ to make its way into home collections.”
Wow, Liz Smith talking about her purchase of bootleg videos! I don’t need to ask how she got her copy, since “Liza with a Z” has been floating around for years and can be easily obtained off eBay. And I have to concur about the visual aspect of the video — the picture quality is fairly grainy (reportedly it is taken from a 16mm print). But Liz Smith is on target in one key area: “Liza with a Z” is one of the most electrifying concert performances ever captured on camera.
For those who only know of Liza Minnelli today from the tabloid nonsense coverage of her raucous personal life, “Liza with a Z” is a stunning reminder of her brilliance as a performer. Not just in the vocal department, but also as a dancer (Bob Fosse’s choreography and squadron of sleek hoofers in trademark derbies keep the show spinning as a furious pace) and also as a risk-taker. Minnelli had the audacity to provide her own distinctive covers of various well-worn musical classics, taking “God Bless the Child” from Billie Holiday, “Son of a Preacher Man” from Dusty Springfield and even Al Jolson’s “Mammy” and electrifying them with an intensity that sparked new life into each tune. Some of her stylings are eccentric to the point of shock, such as a sizzingly and sensual take on “Bye Bye Blackbird” or a rendition of “It Was a Good Time” that suggests the arrival of a nervous breakdown, but she pulls these off with such a whirlwind force of personality that leaves the viewer breathless.
Minnelli’s sense of comedy is also served beautifully. The title song is a novelty number in which she groans how her name constantly gets mangled by well-meaning fans (the most famous example, which is diplomatically not cited in this show, was Ed Sullivan’s hearty introduction of “Miss Lisa Minnelli” on his variety program). More fun can be had in “Ring Them Bells,” a hilarious song about a lonely New Yorker who travels to Europe in search of a potential husband, discovering her Mr. Right on a beach in Yugoslavia — and the guy is actually a hitherto unknown neighbor who lives down the hall from her apartment.
“Liza with a Z” is capped by a medley of songs from “Cabaret,” which had been released a few months before the concert was filmed. Even in the stripped down version of the musical numbers presented here (Fosse did not bother doing elaborate recreations of the film for this show), Minnelli offers a kinetic explosion of musical genius in echoing the acid, vulnerability and hedonism from the celebrated score.
“Liza with a Z” was a major success when it was first televised, earning its star and director well-deserved Emmy Awards (the duo would also receive Oscars for “Cabaret,” making this their golden year). The soundtrack album was also a major commercial triumph, and it is still in circulation on CD. Yet aside from a rebroadcast on several PBS stations during the early 1980s (albeit with the removal of the commercials from the show’s orginal sponsor, the Singer sewing machine folks), “Liza with a Z” can only be found today on bootleg videos. Most likely the program is out of release due to problems in clearing the music rights, a sticky situation which has kept a slew of television programs from being rebroadcast or commercially released on DVD.
The bootlegs of “Liza with a Z,” as stated earlier, are not visually satisfactory and in many shots Minnelli is a white blur racing across a black stage. Mercifully, there is nothing wrong with the sound quality. So if you want to hear a damn fine concert and you don’t mind a bit of squinting now and then, “Liza with a Z” is a must-have for any serious bootleg collector. And if you don’t believe me, ask Liz Smith!
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.
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