April 4, 2014 at 1:00 am

Tom Long

Review: 'Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me' is all that brass and more

Detroit native Elaine Stritch is portrayed as a still-fiery spirit being betrayed by a failing body in 'Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me.' (Tribeca Film Festival)

You expect “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me” to be an endearing and nostalgic look at a brassy showbiz life. And it is.

What isn’t nearly as expected is the film’s poignant and at times painfully honest look at a lioness in winter, its portrait of a still-fiery spirit being betrayed by a failing body. There’s mortal truth in this film that shades all the memories and shenanigans.

Director Chiemi Karasawa followed longtime Broadway sensation Stritch, who was born in Detroit and last year returned to live in Birmingham, around during her 86th year, as she prepared a nightclub act made up of Stephen Sondheim songs.

Using still photos and archived performances, Karasawa establishes Stritch’s impact on Broadway, as well as her movie and television work (during the film, she’s still playing Alec Baldwin’s mother on “30 Rock”). The camera goes to brunches, on walks along city streets and lingers in Stritch’s apartment at the Carlyle Hotel.

It also follows Stritch through rehearsals and on stage, and something soon becomes apparent. Battling diabetes, Stritch is having trouble with her memory, and Sondheim’s lyrics are famously brain-busting to begin with. Every time she begins a song you wonder how far she’ll get with it; the answer at times is not very.

But then that’s balanced by the woman’s command on stage and her rapport with obviously adoring audiences. There’s an audaciousness to an 86-year-old woman in black nylons and a white shirt belting out show tunes that are full of hope and guts and courage.

Stritch ends up in the hospital a few times, once she wanders around in a low-sugar haze, and the ravages of time are never far out of mind.

“How is the end of pretend going to be?” she wonders while talking to the actor John Turturro, one of many famous faces in the film dropping by to praise Stritch.

“There’s something exciting about being afraid,” she tells him.

And there’s something inspiring in statements like that. “Elaine Stritch” is filled with bluster and memories, blunt outbursts and funny moments. But more importantly, it is filled with honesty.

'Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me'

GRADE: B+

Not rated

Running time: 80 minutes

tlong@detroitnews.com
twitter.com/toomuchTomLong

More Tom Long