Directed by Chiemi Karasawa
The worst thing you can say about Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me is that it’s too damn short, clocking in at just over 80 minutes. Within only a few of those minutes, it’s clear that the subject of this up-close-and-personal documentary could fill at least 2 hours with stories from her eclectic past, working with such legends as Stephen Sondheim, Rock Hudson, Bela Lugosi, Edward Albee, and more. Instead, the documentary follows her around New York City and Detroit over a short period in early 2012, displaying how feisty, fierce, and wonderfully alive Ms. Stritch is at 87. (And, as this film is being marketed around the country upon its release, it’s clear that, at age 89, she hasn’t slowed down much.)
From the start, Stritch is at her unfiltered best. (For those who delighted at her saying “fuck” on The Today Show recently, you’ll only have to wait about, oh, thirty seconds to hear her say as much in this film, wishing that she could still drive: “Then I’d be a menace.”) Director Chiemi Karasawa follows Stritch from her room at the Carlyle Hotel in NYC to a day or two of filming at 30 Rock, in which she had the recurring role of Jack Donaghy’s guilt-tripping mother, and then back to the Carlyle for rehearsals of an upcoming one-woman show where she sings “one Sondheim song at a time.” The few minutes we spend on the 30 Rock set, where she playfully hectors Alec Baldwin (one of this film’s executive producers) and star/creator Tina Fey, end up serving as foreshadowing: her character, in the episode in question, winds up in the hospital, which is where the real Stritch finds herself a couple of times thanks to her diabetes.
These sections are somewhat unexpected—though it’s clear early on that Stritch has diabetes, as when she asks Tracy Morgan where his blood sugar is at the moment compared to hers—if only because of how close and forward-looking Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me. Though we get some details about her many years on the stage, as well as her marriage to the late John Bay, the documentary is tightly focused on the here and now. Thus, when Stritch is laid down because of low blood sugar, it’s a bit of a shock, coming just about out of nowhere. Karasawa’s approach to filming Stritch is both matter-of-fact and an intentionally extreme close-up of a life that seems nowhere near to reaching its end point, but in these scenes, a slightly wider look, a bit more context, would be welcome. (Related to the close-up approach, there are a few nice moments Karasawa includes where Stritch criticizes the shooting style, as in one early moment where the camera’s so close to her face that she point-blank tells the crew to back off.)
Even with health-related issues, Stritch is constantly able to get back on her feet and impress audiences as well as her devoted musical director, Rob Bowman, all while mocking them gleefully. This theme runs throughout a number of the celebrity testimonials to Stritch’s talent. It’s not exactly required—anyone with a passing knowledge of Broadway should be fully aware of Stritch’s impact, staying power, and charm—but still pleasant to hear Baldwin, Fey, Nathan Lane, Hal Prince, and a few others (including the late James Gandolfini) express so much joy at knowing and having worked with her. The one notable absence among the interviewees is Sondheim, whose 1970s-era musicals served as a backbone to both Stritch’s one-woman show and to her later career, though a telegram he sends her on the eve of her first performance at the Carlyle provides the biggest laugh in the film.
For her longtime fans, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me may not offer a wealth of new knowledge, but it’s safe to assume that’s not why they’d want to watch the film anyway. (A list of Indiegogo backers are mentioned in the end credits, so this was clearly a labor of love all around.) What the documentary does offer is another glimpse into the life of a woman who feels comfortable saying anything to anyone, damn the consequences. Here, as in her Tony Award-winning one-woman show from 2001, Stritch is a caustic delight, her raspy and rhythmic voice doing the best justice to songs like “I’m Still Here” and “The Ladies Who Lunch” as well as “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” Stritch, as the film’s ending text mentions, has said she’d retire this year…or maybe next year…or maybe the year after that. With this film in mind, though, we should all hope that Ms. Stritch never decides to hang up her fur-lined hat entirely.
— Josh Spiegel