Author's note: This review is based on a preliminary screener disc, not the final shelf product that you might buy or rent. Therefore, all evaluations concerning video and audio specifications are subject to change. This disc arrived without any packaging, as well, so any possible supplements were not included.
I wasn't looking for a "gay getaway." I just wanted a look at the new Liberace museum in Las Vegas. And I sort of got that in Gay Getaways: A Tribute to Liberace, a 58-minute episode of Gay Getaways, which I assume is some sort of gay-themed cable travel series (I went to the website, but it doesn't list any networks that actually air the show). It's a pretty rocky, homemade-feeling doc shot on shaky Hi-Def that's really only of interest once the host, Greg Osborne, actually starts showing some of Liberace's collection of cars, rings and costumes.
I can distinctly remember catching a Liberace special shot for Showtime back in the late 70s, and coming away thinking he was a hell of a performer. I know serious musicians looked down on his schmaltzy arrangements of classical pieces and his ridiculously exaggerated style of playing (the better for audiences to see his hands in action), while pop culture pundits snickered at his gaudy, overblown sets and costumes, and his cadre of blue-haired dears who sat reverently at ringside, following his every move. But I have to say, even as a kid, that I found him to be delightfully funny. You can say what you want about his rather bizarre manufactured image (used to great effect in Tony Richardson's The Loved One), but there's no deny his rapport with the audience was special, and that his comedic timing was flawless. Obviously gay (although to my knowledge, he never "came out" publicly), Liberace had that wonderfully naughty (for my time period, at least) barely submerged gay humor like other almost-out celebrities such as Paul Lynde or Charles Nelson Riley, that was such a charge in otherwise tame TV land. A consummate showman, he put on one hell of a concert, complete with a flying bit where he came out in a huge ermine coat, a rhinestone studded Rolls Royce he rolled out, and a timed water fountain backdrop with colored lights as he pounded the keys. So as a fan of the entertainer, I was looking forward to this trip to Las Vegas, and a detailed look at the star.
Unfortunately, Gay Getaways: A Tribute to Liberace's wobbly production and amateurish focus pretty much squanders this opportunity. The doc is roughly broken up into three sections. Osborne introduces himself at the museum, and we get a brief six or seven minute excerpt (with no context) of Wes Winters' musical tribute to Liberace. Then, Osborne sits down with Winters and they discuss Winters' background and his connection with the Liberace Museum. And finally, Osborne takes a tour with Tanya through the museum, concentrating on Liberace's cars, clothes, rings, and his piano collection. Only this final segment is of any use, and it's not put together much better than your average camcorder vacation footage.
Mistake number one comes right at the beginning, when the doc fails to give the viewer a sense of place by only shooting the entrance to the museum. We have no idea of the size of the place, or where it's located, so we're never really sure how anything is oriented during the individual segments (lack of establishing shots is always the hallmark of amateur night in these docs). Once we're in watching Wes Winters (with no preamble for the viewer as to what we're watching - we're not even sure at first that he's appearing at the museum), the shoddy camera work utterly ruins any appreciation of what Winters may be doing. Shot from the back of the room with a shaky handheld camera (complete with the backs of the audience's heads blocking the shot), the sound is atrocious and the framing is laughable, with the camera bobbing and weaving and zooming in and out. A plethora of documentaries on cable networks like The History Channel and The Discovery Channel have spoiled viewers for professionally executed docs; nowadays they expect good camerawork, lighting, and cinematography - none of which you'll find here. Short clips of Liberace are interspersed with Winters' performance (I assume they're projected during his bit?), making the viewer wish they could just watch him, and not this tentative tribute.
An interview with Winters follows, and although he seems like a nice enough guy, I'm not particularly interested in his background, or his views on entertainment available off the Strip in Vegas, because frankly, I didn't see enough of his act to care one way or the other about him. I want to hear about Liberace. When Winters does stick to the subject, the info is vague, at best. He states that Liberace was an innovator of many things in show business...but never elaborates beyond stating he wore costumes on stage (and Osborne doesn't ask him to go into further detail, either). Ultimately, the interview comes off as a big advertisement for Wes Winters (complete with website plug at the bottom of the screen), which everyone at the time might have thought was a good way to promote the museum, but go to the website now: Wes Winters is leaving the museum to appear at a new venue on the Strip. This travelogue spends a lot of time plugging a performer who won't even be at the museum by the time most viewers see the DVD.
Once we get inside the museum proper, the interest factor in Gay Getaways: A Tribute to Liberace kicks up a notch because we actually start to get material that's directly related to Liberace. It's a lot of fun to see the fabulous, gaudy cars, costumes, rings and pianos of Liberace, but again, the doc's incompetent production negates much of the viewer's enjoyment of this segment. The tour begins disastrously with Tayna reading off a wall that has stats and pictures of Liberace, while Osborne repeatedly utters inappropriate exclamations of delight and surprise ("Liberace's mother lived in Wisconsin." "Incredible!"). Once in with the collection, the camerawork is again all over the place (hasn't anybody involved with this production heard of a tripod?), zooming in an out randomly, while Osborne walks around with a water bottle in his hand (not the most professional look for a host). And again, no establishing shots give us zero sense of the place. It appears like a big complex, but who can tell for sure with this doc? The trip ends, and we as veiwers find we know very little about Liberace, and even less about his musuem.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.