“She’s still here … but not for much longer” is the subtext of “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me,” a superior celebrity docu that finds the Broadway legend on the doorstep of her 87th birthday, contemplating retirement as well as her own mortality. Painting a surprisingly tender, insulin-injections-and-all portrait of a star known for her brassy demeanor and Teflon exterior, this feature directing debut for vet docu producer Chiemi Karasawa (“The Betrayal,” “Tell Them Anything You Want”) should earn wide fest and ancillary exposure, plus limited theatrical, where it will prove catnip to the cabaret crowd and those entranced by the artistry of great performers.
Karasawa starts with a montage of her subject brazenly negotiating street and sidewalk traffic on the Upper East Side, pausing to needle admirers with her Don Rickles-esque ripostes. Then on to the set of “30 Rock,” where she ably trades barbs with TV son Alec Baldwin (also one of the docu’s executive producers). From there, it’s back to the Carlyle Hotel, where Stritch lives and is rehearsing a new show —“Singin’ Sondheim … One Song at a Time” — with longtime musical director Rob Bowman. A great many films of this sort would have happily continued along in this breezy, not-very-deep vein. But “Shoot Me” suggests it has bolder ambitions when Stritch, mid-rehearsal, becomes weak and starts forgetting her lines. The lapse is blamed on low blood sugar, but as Karasawa goes on to reveal, Stritch’s memory has been failing her for a while, sometimes leaving her perched on the edge of panic before she has to take the stage.
This much won’t come as news to those who’ve seen Stritch perform in recent years, where, always the consummate show woman, she and Bowman have elegantly folded her gaffes into a production that has often seem propelled by sheer iron will. But as “Shoot Me” proceeds, Stritch allows herself to appear far more vulnerable and emotionally naked than she ever has in front of an audience. There are hospital stays (as her diabetes worsens), followed by more anxiety attacks, and one truly frightening episode — a medical emergency during a visit to the Hamptons — that plays like an outtake from “Amour.”
In between, Karasawa captures admiring testimonials from friends both inside (Tina Fey, James Gandolfini) and outside (a fellow AA member) showbiz. And there is much sharp-tongued reminiscing from Stritch herself, about dating JFK (she was too good of a Catholic girl to let him have his desired way), her alcoholism, the legends with whom she shared the stage, and her marriage to actor and playwright John Bay (cut short after 10 years by his death from a brain tumor). Yet it’s aging, gracefully but painfully, that turns out to be “Shoot Me’”s unassailable constant. “I like the courage of age,” Stritch says in one scene — and, even when she is at her weakest, her courage fills the room.
Karasawa deftly orchestrates the sometimes hairpin tonal shifts, never veering towards the saccharine; if she did, Stritch would probably shoot her. Late in the film, she follows Stritch to an engagement in the performer’s native Detroit, where she reconnects with her large extended family and begins to think about hanging up her signature oxford shirt and tights for good. Indeed, Stritch’s last act, like those that have come before it, isn’t going to happen on anyone else’s schedule. At the Tribeca screening reviewed, Karasawa and Bowman revealed that the movers had picked up the remainder of Stritch’s belongings that very morning, en route to Michigan. Quite literally, Elaine had left the building, but not before leaving this very fine cinematic testament behind.