Elaine Stritch is a force of nature. The Broadway legend has been performing on stage since the 1940s, or to put it another way, Noel Coward once wrote a show for her.
To have survived that long and remained relevant in a profession best known for chewing people up and spitting them out there has to be something special about you.
The documentary “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me” peeks in on this brutally honest performer at the sprightly age of 87 as she prepares to put on a one-woman show.
Behind-the-scenes entertainment documentaries tend to be pretty bland as the vast majority of entertainers are keenly aware of when they are on camera and even when they “let their guard down” there is a sense of self-awareness that never goes away.
With Stritch, either because of her age or her personality, she is always so frank and emotionally unguarded (or perhaps always, always performing) that the movie is less about putting on a show and more about what it means to near the end of a career and a life on the best and most uncompromising terms.
The film dutifully looks back at Stritch’s career and personal life. The loss of her husband to cancer and her struggles with alcoholism are documented along with her stage and screen triumphs.
Interviews with friends and collaborators like Alec Baldwin, James Gandolfini, Cherry Jones, Tina Fey, and Nathan Lane all serve to portray Stritch as an emotional roller coaster, a pain in the neck, and a performer of unequaled brilliance when the lights went up.
This is all pretty standard, boilerplate stuff; but in the moments when the camera focuses on Stritch herself the movie kicks into a higher gear and it becomes instantly clear why director Chiemi Karasawa endured the slings and arrows of chasing Stritch around with a camera for several months.
Stritch is planning to go on the road for a handful of shows where she sings various Stephen Sondheim songs. In preparation, she suffers the many indignities of old age, including memory loss and fatigue, which are exacerbated by her diabetes and lingering alcoholism.
At times it seems she will never make it to the stage as Stritch never flinches, often staring right into the camera with no makeup and her hair in curlers describing how much it sucks to be 87.
You start to wonder why she is going through with it and pushing herself to the limits and why no one is discouraging her from what is starting to look like, at best, a sad train-wreck of a show.
But then Stritch gets in front of a crowd wearing a man’s button-down shirt and a pair of black tights and a magical transformation occurs.
All her insecurities disappear and the love affair between her and her audience becomes instantly apparent. Even moments that should be cringe-inducing, like when she spaces on a lyric, she’s so engaged with the crowd it merely seems like a charming part of the act.
It is in this moment that “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me” becomes not only a guidebook on how to age gracefully and boldly but a perfect illustration of what drives performers to perform.
Stritch is a remarkable woman not only for her talent but for her sheer will to succeed. They’ve built statues of people for less.
“Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me” is not rated but contains adult language.