Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Six By Sondheim (2013): Editing a Love Letter to Sondheim

Six by Sondheim (2013)
dir: James Lapine
editor: Miky Wolf

It's Christmas, you're sitting around with your family. You probably ate a bit much. But, you may be a bit wary of all the Christmas cheer that has been permeating culture since practically Halloween. A good match for a post-Christmas dinner family watch is Six by Sondheim, James Lapine's ode to his frequent collaborator, Stephen Sondheim.

But, I want to really open this review by giving a callout to editor Miky Wolf. Because, this movie is an ode to the editor. It is not as much a documentary pieced together by a director, as a montage created on the editing table by a careful culling of just the right quotes from Sondheim and his friends and collaborators to perfectly tell the idealized story of Stephen Sondheim's career throughout the years. The editing is masterful, and defining of how much work an editor needs to do to find the perfect phrase for the perfect section.

Six refers to six songs that Sondheim and Lapine have decided to use to spell the emotions of eras. His first musical as a lyricist, West Side Story, opened with "Something's Coming." Merrily We Roll Around has the song "Opening Doors" about three musical creators trying to get their musical created on Broadway. A Little Night Music brings the first mega-song "Send in the Clowns" to detail how to write for scenes and for specific actors. Follies brings us "I'm Still Here" about the ups and downs of a career. Company gives us "Being Alive" wherein Sondheim claims to have only fallen in love at 60. And, we close out with Sunday in the Park with George's "Sunday" which is a funereal march to forever.

Six By Sondheim isn't a be-all end-all guide to Sondheim. It's an ode to his musical career, which is always what Sondheim will be known for. At The Other Films, we love Sondheim for both his musicals and for his dramas, including The Last of Sheila co-written with his supposed then-lover Anthony Perkins, and Getting Away With Murder, which has nothing to do with the Lily Tomlin/Dan Ackroyd vehicle of the same name.  More of those, please Mr. Sondheim!

Six By Sondheim erases his occasional dramatic side ventures, as well as any relationship with Anthony Perkins to focus on his musical career, his influences as an artist, how he writes, and other such informational stuff that is best left up to be discussed by Mr. Sondheim himself from the mountains of archival footage that was lovingly culled through. It has original footage of Ethel Merman on stage as Gypsy Rose Lee. There is lost 16mm interview footage of Sondheim that was b-roll for an earlier interview in the 70s. Television footage, and just about everything you can imagine. It's all out of the mouth of Stephen Sondheim, and it works wonders.

And, if you don't want just talking heads, 3 of the 6 numbers are old videos. "Something's Coming" is taken from what looks like a television version. "Being Alive" comes from the documentary about the original cast album by D.A. Pennebaker. And, "Sunday" comes from the original stage show. And, 3 of the numbers are completely newly created. "Opening Doors" is directed in a technicolor candy-coated style by James Lapine featuring a cast of Glee singers to bookend the musical career. "Send in the Clowns" is sung by Audra McDonald and Will Swenson.

But, the most radical rendition is Jarvis Cocker's take on "I'm Still Here" in the segment directed by Todd Haynes, a New Queer Cinema movement alumnus. The story concocted around this is Jarvis is a bar singer, and this is a slow sultry take on it as various women look on. As "I'm Still Here" is usually a song of female power (see Shirley MacLaine's powerhouse performance from Postcards from the Edge which was left out of Six By Sondheim), especially given that it was based on Joan Crawford's career. Haynes' version is the diametric opposite. And, it works beautifully. This is a song so flexible that it is either the tragedy of bumpy roads, or the forceful determination through all the rough times.

Six by Sondheim is an amazing venture through archival footage that you'll love to discover. It's family friendly, and could be cherished in the holiday settings once you're done celebrating and are looking for something new and heartwarming to stumble across on television.

Only on HBO for now.

P.S. Please have more bonus footage on the blu-ray when it comes out. Including more on Sweeney Todd which was all but ignored in this documentary.

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