‘Shoot Me’: Elaine Stritch & ‘the end of pretend’

shootmeThe early 2014 documentary “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me” now serves as a perfect send-off for the great stage star who died last week at the age of 89.

Stritch’s unique combination of talent, ego and high anxiety fueled her 2001 one-woman Broadway show “Elaine Stritch At Large.” Already in her 70s then, the star told the story of her life in monologues and songs that set a new standard for live autobiography (the show was recorded and is available on CD and DVD).

Chiemi Karasawa’s documentary picks up Stritch’s life 10 years later, when age finally started catching up with the performer. Increasingly frail but determined, the star was followed by the filmmaker through her final professional engagements — a club act at the Carlyle Hotel, a concert at Town Hall and a return to her hometown of Detroit for a nightclub show.

Because Stritch decided to allow Karasawa what looks like unlimited access to her world, “Shoot Me” becomes a harrowing study of the challenges of old age.

shootme2Stritch was an alcoholic who decided in her 80s that she needed one drink a day as a reward and that might have led to some of the diabetic hospitalizations that we see in the movie. Despite her often outrageous displays of ego, the star shows no physical vanity here, signing off on sequences in which she is comatose and/or knocked out by the ravages of her medical condition.

The cliche “the show must go on” gains new meaning in “Shoot Me” as a fearful, forgetful Stritch performs in the very intimate confines of the Cafe Carlyle, knowing that at any moment she might forget the devilishly difficult Stephen Sondheim songs she has chosen to sing.

Music director Rob Bowman takes on heroic stature in the documentary as we see him becoming a lifeline as well as a professional collaborator — handling her medication and walking on eggshells at rough rehearsals that must have filled him with anxiety.

“Shoot Me” is about a show biz lady, but it also becomes a film about the terrible challenges faced by all old people who decide to hang on in New York City long after they have the strength and coordination to navigate the crowds and the streets without fear.

Karasawa doesn’t get into Stritch’s living situation, but the star’s decision to retire and move back to suburban Detroit was at least partially due to losing her home in the Carlyle Hotel after she could no longer fulfill the deal she made for six weeks of performances each year in exchange for living there year-round.

Stritch had a great long life, but the trauma of having to leave theatrical performance behind and to move from New York to Michigan at her age must have taken a terrible physical and emotional toll after the film crew left. The star calls the shift “the end of pretend.”

“Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me” is available on Netflix, Amazon and most of the other movie download services.

Joe Meyers