Crazy, Sexy, Cool
While every generation has its own archetype of the crazy but sexy girl, the late ‘60s version was best embodied by Liza Minnelli. And because this time period was so extreme, Minnelli personifies the quintessential hot but nutty chick. Much of this is due to her Oscar nominated role as Pookie Adams in the 1969 movie The Sterile Cuckoo. She wonderfully played the character of a kooky and vulnerable, sexually adventurous teen-age girl. This movie made Minnelli a star, and she followed it with a similar part as the title character in the flick Tell Me You Love Me, Junie Moon. Minnelli then made movie history as the Oscar winner for Best Actress in her next film, Cabaret, starring a similar character in the guise of as Sally Bowles.
It was during this period, from 1968-72, that Minnelli released four albums on the A&M record label. They have just been released, with bonus tracks, on a two-CD set. The four albums are so different that this compilation could have been easily titled The Four Sides of Liza Minnelli. Two of the four albums here are excellent, and some of the bonus tracks are outstanding as well. In fact, there’s a thin line between performing in the persona of a crazy person (think of David Bowie’s Alladin Sane) and being somewhat nuts. Minnelli performs several songs in the guise of a recognizably mentally ill narrator. She sings the others straight and these are disturbing in a much different way.
The first album, simply titled Liza Minnelli, is a delightful slice of folk pop. Minnelli covers three quirky Randy Newman tunes with a light touch, as well as a spirited version of a song by her soon-to-be husband, Peter Allen, “(The Tragedy of) Butterfly McHeart”. These tunes all have idiosyncratic protagonists. She also does inspired versions of Lennon/McCartney’s “For No One”, Bacharach/David’s “The Look of Love” and the title tune from the musical The Happy Time. It’s the other two tracks that are problematic.
Minnelli covers “My Mammy”, a song her mother Judy Garland performed on many occasions along with other standards from the Al Jolson songbook. Certainly blackface minstrel music was considered gauche by 1968, but Minnelli could get away with this simply because her mother was so well-known. The Freudian implications of the dramatically performed song were self-evident, which points to another reason Minnelli’s identification with the crazy girl was so prominent. Everyone knew about Judy Garland’s troubles, and so by osmosis or inheritance, it was assumed her daughter had them as well.
The other cover was a strange medley of “Married” (from the musical Cabaret) and Sonny Bono’s divorce anthem “You Better Sit Down, Kids”. The first song is light and happy, but the second one is played for full melodramatic effect with pounding drums, somber strings, and blaring horns. Minnelli belts the tender words to the children she deserts to her husband as if she was a general barking orders to her troops. The effect is downright weird.
The outtakes from this album include three lovely collaborations with Brazilian Luiz Henrique. While they don’t quite fit the mood of the original record, the songs deserve to be heard.
The second album’s name, Come Saturday Morning,comes from the from the Oscar-nominated song from the film The Sterile Cuckoo. Minnelli’s version lacks the elan of The Sandpipers, who performed it on the movie soundtrack, and on the whole the album seems diffident. Minnelli sings material as diverse as Jimmy Webb’s “MacArthur Park”, Aretha Franklin’s “Don’t Let Me Lose This Dream”, Frank Loesser’s “On A Slow Boat to China”, and Gordon Lightfoot’s “Wherefore and the Why” in the same sing-song rhythms. The album appears to be the product of a tranquilized mind. Still, taken individually, each song has a certain, laid back charm.
The third record, New Feelin’, takes the exact opposite tack. Minnelli sounds simply manic as she roars out selections from the Great American Songbook: Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale”, Harold Arlen’s “Stormy Weather” and “Come Rain or Come Shine”, the Gerwshin brothers’ “The Man I Love”, etc. Minnelli displays little subtlety in her approaches to the material. Basically she begins each of the songs slowly and quietly then builds to climaxes and closes at the top of her lungs. This seems most offensive in her take on Billie Holiday’s fragile “God Bless the Child”. Minnelli may sing “Mother may have / Father may have” as the daughter of famous parents, but she sounds less like a child than a circus impresario announcing the acts. The bonus tracks from this record are better than what is on the original disc, simply because she peforms them in a low key fashion. She performs “Frank Mills” from Hair and Bacharach/David’s “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” and “This Girl’s in Love with You” without the unnecessary over-singing.
The fourth release, Live at the Olympia in Paris allows Minnelli to go over the top in a way appropriate to the live stage. She engages the audience in repartee and shows off her talents to an appreciative crowd. While there is something definitely bizarre in an opening medley that includes “Consider Yourself” from the musical>Oliver>
, The Doors’ “Hello, I Love You (Won’t You Tell Me Your Name)”, and the Broadway show tune “I Gotta Be Me”, Minnelli pulls it off through the strength of her personality. While she redoes “My Mammy” and the “Married/You Better Sit Down, Kids” medley from her first album in ways that are extreme and exaggerated, she is able to carry it off by poking fun of her own pretensions and parodying her immoderate behavior in patter and delivery. She even does a jazzy version of “God Bless the Child” that shows a bit of restraint.
The centerpiece here is a French version of “Liza with a ’Z’” that allows Minnelli to engage the audience on an intimate level while still showing off her many talents. The song was written for her to perform on stage and she knows how to milk it with double-takes, asides, and other theatrical tricks. Minnelli charms throughout the song and the concert as a whole. She is one of the very few people who have won an Oscar, an Emmy, a Tony, and a Grammy award. This live performance reveals her abilities as a quadruple-threat artist.