SAN FRANCISCO–Made for German TV, the feature doc “Yma Sumac: Hollywood’s Inca Princess” charts the career of the Peruvian warbler whose 4 1/2-octave range earned her international fame in the 1940s and ’50s.
The exotic silliness of her Capitol Records discs and her image from that period have long since turned Sumac into a nostalgic camp icon, though her vocal gifts remain striking. Best bets for this OK but far-from-definitive doc lie in targeting cult audiences less interested in musicology than in another era’s kitschy glamour.
Sumac’s history remains mysterious. She evidently rose to local prominence from a poor background in Peru before traveling to the U.S. with husband-composer Moises Vivanco in the early ’40s.
Once signed, her remarkable, almost avant-garde vocal effects–capable of imitating twittering birds and grunting beasts– became an unlikely rage when set amid lavish orchestral spins of traditional Peruvian folk tunes.
Capitol fanned the flames by devising a phony bio that painted Yma as a village lass descended from Inca royalty who’d been kidnapped by urban talent scouts. The cynical backlash (accusations flew that she was actually anagrammatic “Amy Camus,” a Brooklyn voice student) probably did more to harm her in the long run as a “novelty” act than the hype promoted her career.
While she appeared in one flop B’way musical (“Flahooey”) and a middling-success Hollywood actioner (“Secret of the Incas,” with Charlton Heston), Sumac was passe by the end of the ’50s. Her cult rep flourished, however, with a late-’80s comeback tour that won some attention.
Major drawback is Sumac’s declining from participation in the doc, though TV news footage of her ’80s club shows is glimpsed. Interviewees include her early Peruvian showbiz comrades, Capitol bizzers, international fans and a music expert who uses computer technology to examine her remarkable range.
For someone so famous at a moment in time, the performer seems to have kept her private life quite guarded from view. One luridly amusing exception is news footage of a cat fight between her and a woman who supposedly broke up her marriage with Vivanco.
It’s a fascinating footnote-to-music-history saga, but “Hollywood’s Inca Princess” lurches unevenly from straightforward bio material to a more campily appreciative mode. While film is entertaining, one hopes that other filmmakers will be able to gain Sumac’s trust and make her an on-camera commentator in a more complete view of her unique career.