Saturday, November 16, 2013

Ghost Light documentaries

I had two visits to the recent London Film Festival but in an odd twist, it was to see two documentaries that took Broadway legends as it's subjects: Marvin Hamlisch and Elaine Stritch.  With similar subject matter, it was also interesting to compare the two styles of documentary.

MARVIN HAMLISCH: WHAT HE DID FOR LOVE was directed by Dori Berinstein who was also the director of the wonderful SHOW BUSINESS: THE ROAD TO BROADWAY which chronicled the fortunes of four shows during the 2003-4 Broadway season.  Dori was at the screening and told us that she had finished editing it only a few days before.  Also in the audience was Maria Friedman who featured in the latter part of the film.

Dori Berinstein knew Hamlisch personally and her documentary is a loving tribute to the composer who in the space of three years won 3 Academy Awards (all in one night!), a Tony Award, the Pulitzer Prize and a Grammy Award.  His later Emmy Award made him one of only eleven performers who have won all these major performance honours.  A Julliard-trained pianist, he went from being a child prodigy to a career on Broadway and in films rather than into the expected classical concert halls.

Although shy when growing up, with his fame came a new bravura which made Hamlisch a popular chat-show guest on both sides of the pond which provides Berinstein with a wealth of footage, an odd occurrence for a composer.  She has also interviewed a wide-ranging group of artists that Hamlisch worked with over the years: Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli, Carly Simon, Ann-Margret, Quincy Jones, Tim Rice, John Lithgow, Carole Bayer Sager, Alan & Marilyn Bergman, Idina Menzel, Steven Soderbergh, Christopher Walken... they're all here.

Dori Berinstein covers his career in a fluid and involving style, from a cossetted Jewish upbringing to his Julliard years, and his stint as the FUNNY GIRL rehearsal pianist which led to his lifelong friendship with Barbra Streisand.  His moonlighting as a pianist at private parties led to meeting film producer Sam Spiegel and an entrée into composing for films but his first love was the Broadway musical.  After the massive success of A CHORUS LINE and the popular THEY'RE PLAYING OUR SONG Hamlisch found it difficult to keep up the momentum and the film covers his despondency over this.  Interviews with his wife Terre Blair give us an insight into the private man and his sudden death in 2012 is obviously deeply felt by her and colleagues.

Later on in the day, while crossing Waterloo Bridge, we bumped into Dori Berinstein so I took the opportunity to tell her how much I had enjoyed the film!  I also told her how much I had enjoyed SHOW BUSINESS and we had a lovely long chat about theatre in NY and London.  She was very interested in my memories of Hamlisch's musical JEAN SEBERG at the National Theatre which I had seen 5 times - never seeing the same show twice.  She said "I should have had you in the film"!  I was thrilled.

The second documentary was ELAINE STRITCH: SHOOT ME, a film by Chiemi Karasawa on the unstoppable Broadway star.  The director was at the screening as well as Stritch's music director Rob Bowman and her friend Julie Keyes.  We arrived at the ICA in the middle of a torrential downpour so watching the film was a very clammy experience as the audience was a mass of leaking shoes and steaming clothes.

Karasawa's film is sometimes hilarious, sometimes queasy, always fascinating look at how an 88 year old woman is still pursuing a career in show business, despite failing faculties and beset by fluctuating blood sugar levels.

The film covers the year 2011 when Stritch had just finished appearing in the revival of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC opposite Bernadette Peters, filmed her last appearance in 30 ROCK and started rehearsing for her cabaret turn SINGING SONDHEIM... ONE SONG AT A TIME at the Carlyle Hotel (where she was a resident) - a full schedule for even someone half her age.  I think it is telling that of her 5 Tony Award nominations, she managed to finally win for her one-woman show.  She is her best performance.

We watch as Stritch paces the show out in rehearsal with her patient m.d. Rob Bowman which is at times painful to watch as she grows more angry with each forgotten song lyric.  Bowman truly displays the patience of Job but, with a career that has already encompassed 5 Tony nominations, 8 Emmy nominations, working with Bela Lugosi, originating roles in musicals from Coward to Sondheim, Stritch has high professional standards that refuse to compromise to piffling things such as health and age.  She also keeps up a series of one-nighter appearances and it is during one of these out-of-town that she is hospitalised.  But she refuses to compromise: tickets have been sold for the Carlyle show as well as a one-nighter at New York Town Hall and she must deliver the goods.

When we finally see the shows it is a revelation: what to the audience are jokes about forgetting lines and the running order etc. are actually the truth.  Stritch even tells the Carlyle audience that the reason the show is called ONE SONG AT A TIME is because that's all she can hope to remember.  Needless to say the audience roars with laughter.  But having seen the rehearsals we know that it's not just a schtick, she is telling them the truth.  It comes as no surprise that, after another hospitalisation after her Carlyle shows, that she confesses that the only real love she has ever felt is the audience's.

Indeed the level of access the director has had at times seems intrusive but Chiemi Karasawa said afterwards that although Stritch was very disappointed with the film when she first saw it - "the honeymoon period was over" quipped Julie Keyes, "we've all been there" - now she is very happy with it, possibly because she has seen how positive the reactions are of audiences to it.  Karasawa said Stritch had given her notes on what to edit out but she hasn't touched it! 

As with the Hamlisch film, there are many fans of her work interviewed: Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, George C. Woolf, Cherry Jones, Hal Prince, John Turturro and the late James Gandolfini (who would have thought he would be the first to go?) all praise her.  Chiemi Karasawa said after it that the one person who wouldn't appear was Sondheim.  She said that they have a loving but wary relationship - we see his telegram on her opening night at the Carlyle excusing his absence but ruefully noting she can change his lyrics now.  Karasawa said that after his refusals to appear, she had been worried about using his music in the concert footage as the film's budget was miniscule but she said they managed to get all they wanted. 

Both these documentaries are highly recommended and worth seeking out.

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