What makes for a good documentary? I always struggle when writing reviews for documentaries. I am never sure how to approach them, and how to weight their efficiency, whether to give more importance to their value as pieces of journalism, or as pieces of cinema. I think a lot of people (myself included) tend to prioritize the latter. But just as a documentary with a noble message should be criticized if it exhibits dull filmmaking (a good example would be last year’s Blackfish), I don’t think a documentary with innovative structure is inherently better.
These were all questions I asked myself going into Chiemi Karasawa’s Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me. As a showbiz documentary that follows one of Broadway’s living legends, which also happens to be a funny and loud old lady, I was expecting this to be basically an hour and a half of what it would be like if Elaine Stritch had a reality show. And it’s true that a lot of the pleasures of the movie exist in Stritch’s clever comments. Early in the movie, for example, she is greeted by a fan as she walks through fifth avenue. “You’re still the best” says the fan. “Still, eh?” answers Stritch.
If you are a fan of Stritch, or you like this kind of older diva personality, then you’ll enjoy the hell out of this movie. Similarly, if you actively dislike her, or that type of celebrity, you might be better off not watching the movie. But if you fall anywhere between the two ends of the spectrum, you will probably be amused, but like me, you will also be surprised to find something much more valuable. What is interesting about Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, and what sets it apart from lesser documentaries about celebrities, is: First, Karasawa’s access to film Stritch at virtually every second of her life, and Second: Karasawa’s ferocious attitude towards lingering there, showing much more than any other, much more reverential filmmaker would be comfortable to.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Karasawa doesn’t admire Stritch. That would be a ridiculous claim, since the movie is very much a love letter to the performer and her restless drive to keep working. Stritch, who is well into her eighties, is still actively touring and performing in concerts. If you think that such constant live performing would be exhausting for a woman of her age, then you’d be correct. The fact that Stritch can’t bring herself to stop doing it, and that she does it so superbly, is probably what inspired Karasawa to make the movie. But just as Stritch is fully committed to keep on performing, so is the director to making this movie, and she recognizes that if the heart of this movie is Elaine Stritch, then we better see everything there is to know about her.
The result is, as I expected, hugely entertaining and funny. But it is also sometimes sad, dark, and even hard to watch. Considering its subject, you might have expected the documentary to touch on aging and death, but whereas most documentaries do precisely that, “touch” on it, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me always has those themes present. This shouldn’t scare you, though, the film is not depressing or anything like that. Age and death are appropriate for the movie, holding the space they hold on Stritch’s life. It’s their constant lurking, and the fact that we get to watch Stritch fight and cope with them, what makes the movie a deservingly uplifting experience. Movies that are called “a celebration of life” are often sappy and overly sentimental, but Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, being intensely matter of fact as possible about its protagonist, manages to be just that.
Grade: 8 out of 10