Somehow I wound up sitting across the aisle from Elaine Stritch during the premiere of the new documentary about her life, “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me” and as engaged as I was and as obvious how much of a crowdpleaser it was, I couldn’t help but notice no one was going to enjoy this more than her. This wasn’t hubris – when a clip from her 2001 one-woman show on Broadway, “Elaine Stritch At Liberty” began to play where she sings “I’m Still Here,” she started slapping her thigh, unable to resist the beat.
In the year leading up to her 87th birthday that director Chiemi Karasawa captures in “Shoot Me,” Stritch doesn’t miss one. Nor does the directorial debut of the veteran producer Karasawa, which is relatively light on reflections on the past in favor of the pleasure of being in the consummate entertainer’s company for an hour-and-a-half. Built around the fact that Stritch is still performing, both singing standards downstairs from her suite at the Carlyle in Manhattan and appearing on “30 Rock,” she’s shown as a force of nature from the start, walking around the streets of New York as if she owns the town.
Of course, she does, having conquered Broadway long ago with a rapier wit and a passion for belting the big numbers. Though age generally hasn’t slowed her, the onset of diabetes has and while Stritch appears indominable onstage, Karasawa is granted full access to witness her struggles to keep healthy, including one particularly vicious hypoglycemic attack, and the accompanying insecurity that threatens to sink into her ability to perform. Naturally, that makes the moments when she does, both in the past and present, all the more triumphant.
More than a healthy share of famous admirers are onhand to offer insights and lavish praise upon Stritch, from Tina Fey to James Gandolfini, who imagines a torrid love affair with her had they met when both were 35. Yet Karasawa wisely keeps their time limited, giving the audience both more of Stritch unfiltered and the people who are more part of her daily life, whether that’s her musical director Rob Bowman or her pal Julie Keyes, who she befriended at AA meetings.
There’s also a real organic quality to the way the film allows Stritch to share her history, pulling out old photo albums and knickknacks from storage boxes to recall when she was fired from her first big show after rejecting the romantic overtures of its star Kirk Douglas, a truly revelatory letter from Woody Allen that invites her to be a part of the cast of “September” that outlines his attitude towards actors and filmmaking and memories of her husband who she lost to brain cancer far too young.
Despite Stritch’s occasional protests to the contrary (which results in some of the film’s most raucously funny scenes), the tag team camerawork by Shane Sigler, Josh Weinstein and Rod Lamborn keeps things lively and an elegance emerges from the rough, always-on-the-go feel befitting of its subject. Still, they and the film as a whole does best to simply get out of Stritch’s way since a 60-year-plus career in showbiz has clearly made Stritch the best teller of her own story and doesn’t need much to share it with an audience in a satisfying way. But just as Stritch’s refusal to give her audience the bare minimum is a recurring theme, “Shoot Me” does far more than that and considering that Stritch recently announced her retirement, consider this a worthy, enduring curtain call to a remarkable career that, unfortunately for Stritch if she’s true to her word, won’t abate demand for an encore.
“Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play twice more at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 22nd at the SVA Theater 2 and April 23rd at the Chelsea Clearview Cinemas.