Like most writers, I try to find an entertaining hook or an interesting angle for each piece I write. As I prepared to write this review of Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, a documentary chronicling the life, career, and vivacity of a Broadway and Hollywood legend, my initial instinct was to focus on Elaine herself. After all, at 87 years of age, Elaine Stritch continues to live a fascinating life, performing one-woman musical shows, and making waves dropping F bombs on the set of ‘Today’ with Kathie Lee and Hota. Elaine is a badass who lives her life by a no bullshit policy that somehow makes her refreshing instead of caustic.
We’ll get back to Elaine in a moment, though. The most important thing I can impart to my readers about Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me is just how spot-on director and producer Chiemi Karasawa’s instincts are in the creation of this documentary. Karasawa avoids unnecessary voice-overs and narration, allowing interviews with Elaine herself to carry the narrative of the documentary. When producing a documentary about a woman as full of vigor and charm as Stritch, allowing anyone else to tell her tale would be a disservice to the audience. Sure, Karasawa interweaves short interview segments with colleagues and friends, but these pieces are not meant to tell Stritch’s story as much as to provide framework and structure for the segments featuring Stritch herself to flourish.
The tone of the documentary is deceptively well-crafted, at first eschewing heavy emotionality in favor of allowing Stritch’s brash, no-nonsense, captivating personality to shine. When telling the story of an aging starlet, it might feel natural to give way to overproduction, creating a living memorial of sorts. Instead, Karasawa intentionally underproduces many parts of the film, showcasing a Stritch that is still full of life and energy.
As a side note: please don’t let Stritch know that I called her an ‘aging starlet’ in the previous paragraph. As Stritch herself would say, we’re all aging together at the same time. We’re all in this ride called life together. She might also tell me to ‘fuck off,’ and I’d be okay with that.
To think that this is a documentary without teeth would be to underestimate it. As the narration continues, glimpses of Elaine Stritch’s vulnerability begin to show through the cracks, revealing themselves at first as small drops before eventually flooding the audience. The first moment of weakness reveals itself during a rehearsal where Stritch flubs a line, and teeters on the verge of a breakdown before collecting herself. As Stritch regains her composure, so to does the documentary itself, which correctly chooses not to dwell on this moment for too long. Later scenes gradually introduce more of her fragility; from the loss of her husband, to her battle with alcoholism, to her ongoing struggle with diabetes, Elaine Stritch has had many crosses to bear in her life. To the documentary’s credit, each of these sequences is allowed to play out naturally and organically, never succumbing to artificial emotions.
Elaine Stritch herself is an amazing woman who reveals humility when critiquing her own singing voice and modesty in requesting that the honorary room named after her at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting not be too big or flashy. On the other hand, she demands much of her friends, bossing them around with a directness that only she could pull off. The film calls her a molotov cocktail of madness, sanity, and genius, and at no point does this come across so clearly as a scene towards the end of the film. After struggling over the lyrics for her one-woman show during a rehearsal, turning the ordeal into a near train wreck, Elaine nails a charismatic and wickedly funny performance of ‘I Feel Pretty’ by opening night.
There is plenty more to say about the eccentric Elaine Stritch, but those details aren’t important for the sake of this review. Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me tells Elaine’s story much better than I or anyone else could, mainly because it allows Elaine to take the driver’s seat. For a woman engaged in a lifelong love affair with her audience, this degree of transparency makes her story all the more fascinating.