My first few days back in Southeast Michigan have brought a lot of driving, reunions, food, logistics, and just one film. Time will tell if I’m able to get this blog back up to regular speed. I think it is doable.
The one film, Amy, is clearly one of the most powerful entertainment (as opposed to human rights or other subject) documentaries I’ve ever seen. Using a combination of home movies, existing concert and interview footage, and present day voice-only interviews with the singer’s family and friends, the film charts the rise and fall of singer Amy Winehouse, who achieved her widest fame for her “Back to Black” album around 2007, before falling into a cycle of drug and alcohol abuse that eventually led to her premature death in 2011.
The success of the film, directed by acclaimed filmmaker Asif Kapadia, lies in its ability to refocus the narrative about Winehouse from a one-hit punchline into a full complex person. The viewer walks away with a clear and devastating understanding of how the acquisition of fame changed her life and what those around her could and could not enforce to make sure she was still herself.
I’ll make quick headway on my new mandate with this early morning post. From a young age, I’ve made a note of where I was when I saw a particular film, in addition to the film itself, so I hope this series will be a way to explore those memories and experiences in greater reflective detail.
Reflecting on current events in the entertainment world, the clear cinematic choice for this week has to be Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, an acclaimed documentary from 2010 that “briefly” (since she was such a hard and consistent worker) turned the conversation about Rivers to one of her legacy and impact on other comedians. That same mindset is once again in the mix today following her unfortunately sudden death.
(From a quick look at the internet, it seems that other writers are also re-visiting this title today.)
This film was the only movie I ever saw at the Stonestown Twin on the south side of San Francisco, and I’m fairly sure that I specifically chose to catch the film there, rather than one of the downtown SF cinemas or one back in Marin County. The cinema, which is still in operation today, offers an oddly aged 1970’s twin complex – in the sense that it has not been upgraded or changed hands, etc – and obviously began life as a single screen. At some point, the complex was twinned, but not all of the seats were adjusted, and some of them face closer to the wall than the actual screen. The screen I visited, on the right side of the complex, was a long bowling – alley style auditorium that I remember being popular prior to the rise and eventual ubiquity of stadium seating in movie theaters.
The film itself took an uncompromising and honest examination of Rivers’ career, initially focusing on her in a downturn moment of her work, where she was not stopped working, but not enjoying the same level of fame and success that she had in the past. Rivers brought the filmmakers and the audience right in to her process, explaining how she feared not having anything to do with her life and followed a workaholic type schedule of her bookings and performances to hide that fact. The film also gave a look at some of her earlier work, including appearances on The Tonight Show and other stand – up performances.
I was disappointed, however, that the film did not include a clip from my first introduction to Rivers’ work, in the classic Muppets Take Manhattan:
Ultimately the documentary continued to follow Rivers as she regained momentum in her career through winning the Celebrity Apprentice and other related activities. It’s clear that she continued to maintain that energy all the way to the end.
It is sad that Rivers’ death came suddenly and under what sounds like questionable circumstances, but it seems appropriate that she left on a high note and with a sense of the acclaim she maintained, and the legacy she secured.
Versatile and legendary actress Elaine Stritch first came to my attention in a somewhat unmemorable role (for her – as I learned later) in the 1997 comedy Out to Sea, part of a series of films that comedy legends Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau made together near the end of their careers, and sadly, lives. In a classic eye roll inducing example of Hollywood casting, Stritch portrayed Dyan Cannon’s mother, even though the actresses are only 12 years apart in real life. Stritch commanded the screen in her few scenes, most notably tearing up a rug with fellow veteran Donald O’Connor to a cheesy rendition of “Sea Cruise.”
At some point in the next couple of years I became aware that Stritch is, in fact, a legendary stage actress, arguably best known for originating a role in Company by Stephen Sondheim but boasting many other accomplishments. As a theatre professional I recall noticing that her most recent Broadway appearance, starring in A Little Night Music with Bernadette Peters, was perhaps more successful than the original revival marquee pairing of Catherine Zeta – Jones and Angela Lansbury.
In the present day, Stritch has slowed down, somewhat, and departed her longtime home base of New York City for a new/old home right here in the state of Michigan, where she was born and lived until her late teen years. It seems that old age (she’s now 89) and health have caught up with her, although, on the other hand, she also seems to be a textbook study in “never say never.”
And so the documentary film Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me is making the rounds at cinemas around the country. I first heard about this film well over a year ago and found the actual experience of seeing it to be somewhat anticlimactic for that reason. I also may have been feeling some residual annoyance that I did not attend its Michigan premiere over in Birmingham last month, for which Ms. Stritch was also in attendance.
The film takes an unflinching look at Stritch’s life circa 2011 – 2012, as she continues to perform mostly in cabaret settings, struggles with problems related to the aging process, begins to tire of life in Manhattan and (somehow) maintains a resiliency that “the show must go on” – to use a cliched but true phrase. Stritch demonstrates resiliency, commitment and salty enthusiasm in all of her projects, perhaps most notably in her balance of masking her difficulty in memory into a sort of comedic act with her musical director when they are performing… to the audience’s delight.
I found the scenes where Stritch was at her most genuine to be the most appealing. These moments took the form of when she was with family members or close friends. There she was as a veteran and accomplished performer earning her accolades but also going with the flow and not getting too worked up about something not going right, a deadline or an impending decision that had to be made. It seemed those moments, with her broad and genuine smile and satisfaction, showed her at her most honest.
Ms. Stritch has been vocal about a seemingly and understandably rough transition into her life in Birmingham, but based on recent interviews it appears that things have settled down for her a bit more now, and I do hope that she’ll make a few more appearances in the metro Detroit area, which seems very honored to count her as a regional native.