In the entertainment industry, a lot of women get forsaken in the public’s consciousness even before they reach middle age. In Chiemi Karasawa’s documentary Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, the legendary Elaine Stritch celebrates her 88th birthday. And per one of her oft-performed Stephen Sondheim songs, “she’s still here.” The title of the doc is clearly a play on words – Stritch is hardly a fatalist, but instead she demands to be the center of attention, to be filmed. “Shot” in that way.
The documentary follows Stritch as she gears up for her last tour as she battles the ravages of aging and diabetes. Karasawa paints a well-rounded portrait of Stritch here, because in addition to filming Stritch being her glorious brash self, Karasawa films her forgetting song lyrics, without her makeup, and dealing with her sobriety, among other things. Because of this multifaceted look at Stritch, the film succeeds in being enjoyable, especially since Stritch is such a magnetic presence on screen. There are also interviews with celebrity friends like her 30 Rock son Alec Baldwin (also Executive Producer), Tina Fey, John Turturro, James Gandolfini, and many others. However, Karasawa doesn’t take very many filmic risks that make it stand out from the rest of the pack, and that generic approach ultimately detracts somewhat from the film’s overall quality.
As Stritch prepares for her latest, and as she later decides, her final tour, her main opponent is her declining health. As she practices the revue of Sondheim songs with her beloved Music Director and friend, Rob Bowman, she blanks on the lyrics of songs that she has been performing for years because the diabetes affects her memory. In one very affecting scene, Stritch has a diabetic attack that causes her speech to become nonsensical, which shakes her to the bone since she largely is her words, her brash one-liners and quips. This specific brush with the disease forces her to make the choice of possibly retiring.
However, the film is largely a celebration of what makes Stritch such a valuable performer, peppered with archival photos and videos of her rich history in the entertainment industry. She dated JFK! Noel Coward wrote a musical for her! There is also an amazing clip of her in the recording studio as she meticulously records her signature Sondheim song “The Ladies Who Lunch,” as she beats herself up for not getting the take perfect.
The film is at its best when it takes more of a vérité approach, as Stritch talks directly to the camera, telling the cameraman how to do his job. In one scene, she tells him to back up away from her, unless he is filming a skin commercial. Stritch is always the star when she is in focus and that’s why she has lasted so long. Another standout moment is when Stritch has her diabetic attack because the camera just lets you feel like a fly on the wall amidst such a moment of terror and disorientation. Another point of success here is showing that despite her curmudgeonly ways, Stritch truly loves the company of her friends – besides her passion for performing, her many close relationships are her life source. Karasawa is very capable of depicting this camaraderie with each shot of Stritch and her friends bursting with life and energy.
However, this film perhaps relies too heavily on Stritch’s magnetic force and is somewhat lacking in artistry. Stritch seems like she directs the best scenes, not Karasawa. Stritch’s wonderful humor and ballsiness often distracts you from the fact that the look of this film is somewhat generic – little pains are made with creating any notable cinematography or camera work.
Nevertheless, the film does have a great central focus in Stritch and that makes for fun viewing no matter what. You can’t take your eyes off of her, as she parades around the city pantsless, with only a large white blouse and black tights. Her gravelly voice is almost soothing in the constancy of its brazenness. Stritch is a passionate woman, about both her stage work and her friends, and that never ceases to be a pleasure to watch as well as an inspiration for all people to just plow ahead with what they love doing despite the societal norms of aging, of disappearing from the public eye. Stritch ages the most graceful way possible, and that’s doing what she loves and not letting anyone stop her from doing it.
The Upside: Elaine Stritch is a magnetic presence on screen; the film portrays her in a multi-faceted light
The Downside: Director Chiemi Karasawa doesn’t take very many filmic risks; too straightforward
On the Side: Karasawa was a script supervisor for fifteen years for directors Martin Scorsese, Stephen Frears, Sam Mendes, Spike Jonze, and Jim Jarmusch.