Saturday, March 22, 2014

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me (Rhoades)

Front Row at the Movies

“Elaine Stitch” Documentary
Captures Show Biz Legend

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

Key West hostess Jean Carper often invites friends over to screen a movie in her private home theater. Usually, it’s just a gathering to watch a didn’t-come-here indie film. But a year or so ago, she had a special event, a showing of “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me.”

The documentary about an octogenarian Broadway entertainer hadn’t been released yet, but Carper was sponsoring the gathering to help the filmmaker Chiemi Karasawa raise “finishing funds.”

Karasawa sat quietly in the back, all but holding her breath as we watched her rough cut (which wasn’t very rough at all.) Afterwards, the small group got to have an up-close Q&A with the first-time director.

Although Chiemi Karasawa has extensive credits as a producer and script supervisor, this was her breakthrough as a compleat filmmaker, one worthy of applause. It’s an exceptional film …
… about an exceptional woman.

Elaine Stritch has appeared in stage plays and musicals, feature films and television programs since her 1944 debut as a leggy blonde singer. Over the ensuing years she’s won three Emmys as well as a Tony for her one-woman show “Elaine Stritch at Liberty.”

Stritch is a brassy old broad (in the nicest sense of that description), still belting out Broadway tunes and hoofing it like the show biz pro she’s come to be over a 70-year career. A gay icon, she’s known for her owl-eyed glasses and gravelly-voiced songs like her self-mocking rendition of “I Feel Pretty” and the prophetic “I’m Still Here.”

“Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me” -- opening this week at the Tropic Cinema  -- records her rehearsals for a cabaret show that’s titled “Elaine Stritch Singin’ Sondheim ... One Song at a Time.” Along the way we get to browse through her photograph album (there’s one of young John F. Kennedy, long before he had presidential ambitions), learn about her loves and life and lengthy career. At the same time we watch her battle diabetes, resist alcoholism (only one or two drinks a day), and deal with encroaching memory loss that makes her forget the words of once-familiar songs.

She reminisces about her happy marriage to actor John Bay, who passed away in 1982. A romance she was never able to find again.

You can’t help but get caught up in Stritch’s plucky enthusiasm as her longtime pianist and musical director Rob Bowman puts her through a series of song-belting, heel-clicking practice sessions.

Show biz pals like Alec Baldwin, Tina Fey, and the late James Gandolfini are on hand to give the expected accolades. Gandolfini even speculates that given a different time and place they would have likely had a torrid love affair. But it’s Elaine Stritch’s indomitable spirit that raises “Shoot Me” above the standard celebrity profile.

There’s a bittersweet edge to the film as we discover that she’ll be leaving New York after the Sondheim gig, returning to her hometown in Michigan for her twilight years.

“Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me” is an unflinching portrait of a woman who is aware that the end is approaching. “The bell’s gonna ring pretty soon,” she shrugs. I think we’re more sad about it than she is.

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