When you watch the three-volume collection Liberace, a few questions spring to mind. Could tens of millions of us really have spent decades adoring the first real glam-rock star — a proto-Elton whose catchphrase was ”Do you mind if I slip out of this into something more spectacular?” — without venturing a thought as to what else was in his closet? If so, what planet were we on? And more important, was there really an era when a concert pianist could be afforded valuable prime time to perform Chopin, Strauss, and Rachmaninoff without network heads rolling the next day?
A tape of Liberace performing the classics with the London Philharmonic two years before his 1987 death is a helpful reminder that he wasn’t just famous for being famous. Even with most of his digits weighted down by Plymouth-size rocks, his playing in this unusually dignified twilight performance is light and effortlessly precise. Decorum hardly figures into the other two specials, shot in Vegas in the late ’70s — not with Debbie Reynolds hoofing through ”(Your Love Has Lifted Me) Higher and Higher” with a bevy of boys in wide-collared jumpsuits, or inexplicable guest shots from Sandy Duncan and Lola Falana — but even here there’s slight ivory nutritional value amid all the mega-furs. And as he does his kitsch-virtuoso thing in front of the Hilton’s ”dancing waters” (entertaining against all odds), you’ll maybe forgive him for not wanting to be old or out because mostly he just wanted to be wonderful. And sometimes was. B