‘Liza: A Truly Terrific, Absolutely True Story’ Review: Delightful Doc Celebrates the Extraordinary Career of a Rare Icon

We overuse the word “icon” so often, few people actually realize the great secret behind those who truly deserve the designation: an unthinkable level of hard work.

Sure, extraordinary charisma is essential and rare talent doesn’t hurt. But the key element, the one that will get you EGOT-level achievements and eternal admiration? That doesn’t happen unless you’re prepared to dance on bleeding feet.

So as icons go, Bruce David Klein (“Icahn: The Restless Billionaire”) couldn’t have chosen a better subject. As we see in his delightful documentary “Liza: A Truly Terrific, Absolutely True Story,” Liza Minnelli worked nonstop for half a century. The fame, the adulation, the respect: all of it was earned, one painful step at a time.

Granted, some may pause here and say, “Hold on — wasn’t she the ultimate nepo baby?” But any advantages that came with being the daughter of legendary actress Judy Garland and Oscar-winning director Vincente Minnelli were more than balanced by the concurrent challenges.

Unfortunately, Klein doesn’t address either side of the scale in enough detail. His reasoning is respectable: Minnelli has more than earned a documentary centered around her own talent and immense effort. But we do need a solid base to fully appreciate the subsequent structure. The too-brief presence of half-sister Lorna Luft, for example, reminds us how much more we want to know.

Still, that’s the only real misstep in this generally enchanting experience — and getting the opportunity to watch Minnelli at her peak really is an experience. Klein seems to adore her unreservedly, and he approaches his job as a calling to make sure every single member of the audience does, too.

Minnelli’s career spans so many decades and genres that it would be impossible to include everything in a single film, and unwieldy to try. As such, he divides her life into several chapters, beginning with the death of her mother in 1969 when she was 23. Most are dedicated to the mentors and colleagues who helped define her work in one way or another: Kay Thompson guided her towards an image, Charles Aznavour helped her develop a voice, Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse oversaw her stage work, and Halston was her partner in style and Studio 54 fame.

Klein has assembled a remarkable collage of old material and lifelong friends to bolster each section: they talk about who she was at the time, and we get to see it firsthand. Childhood pal Mia Farrow takes us back to a teenage photo shoot, composer John Kander recalls musical collaborations like “Cabaret,” Ben Vereen tears up as he remembers their romance. And musician Michael Feinstein is the best tour guide of all, appearing in every chapter with a funny story, a fond memory, or — when asked about Minnelli’s infamous fourth husband, David Gest — a tart summation.

We also hear intermittently from Liza herself, who is in her late 70s and in precarious health. But she is sharp and funny and charmingly dictatorial in her interviews, telling Klein where to put his camera and how to edit historic footage. He wisely complies, adding another level of regard to a movie already bursting with love.

liza minnelli
Liza Minnelli

Indeed his generous and thoughtful direction, matched with Alexander Goldstein and Jake Keene’s outstanding editing, brings us as close to the thrilling magic of one of Minnelli’s stage shows as most of us are ever likely to get.

But is it all true? Well … let’s just say that Hollywood has its own, slightly shinier definition of reality. In a film where the most oft-repeated word is “vulnerability,” the lack of focus on Minnelli’s fraught childhood — and swift brush through some of her later highs and lows — does leave the audience with a story half-told.

Still, we get it. Klein, like everyone else onscreen, is understandably protective of the subject who bosses him around with captivating candor and irresistible affection. If the end result is less a comprehensive biography than a long-overdue and entirely-deserved tribute, it is, nevertheless, truly terrific.

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