It’s about time the story of Sophie Tucker gets told. Unfortunately, William Gazecki’s The Outrageous Sophie Tucker is not quite the telling we’ve been waiting for. “She is the most underrated jazz singer that ever lived,” Tony Bennett says in the documentary about the bigger-than-life Tucker. “She was a great jazz singer.” Born Sonya Kalish on Christmas Day in 1886, Tucker was determined to become a star, and she ended up leaving her mark in vaudeville, on radio and television, and in films as an actress, singer, and comedian. But mostly, the woman known affectionately as “the Last of the Red Hot Mamas,” was a major mensch, cavorting with presidents and fans, keeping track of almost everyone she ever met, doing her own promotion, and living life exactly as she wanted to. The Jewish, bisexual Tucker hobnobbed with world leaders, Al Capone, Ed Sullivan, and J. Edgar Hoover (who once asked her for one of her dresses), among many others, and saw her name in lights on theater marquees across the country. However, although the film features some wonderful archival audio and visual footage and photographs of Tucker — singing such songs as “My Yiddishe Momme,” “Some of These Days,” and “Nobody Loves a Fat Girl” and appearing in the films Broadway Melody of 1938 and Gay Love — it never really gets to the heart of who she was; instead, it’s more about producers Susan and Lloyd Ecker, who, after cashing out of a successful internet company, became obsessed with Tucker, meticulously cataloging her more than four hundred scrapbooks and beginning a biographical trilogy with I Am Sophie Tucker: A Fictional Memoir.
The Oscar-nominated Gazecki (WACO: The Rules of Engagement, Reckless Indifference) includes interviews with Bennett, Carol Channing, Michael Feinstein, Shecky Greene, Bruce Vilanch, and Barbara Walters (whose father hired Tucker to regularly play his Latin Quarter nightclub), and there are brief remembrances over the closing credits from Chubby Checker, Joe Franklin, Paul Anka, Connie Stevens, and lesser-known names, but everything else is seen through the eyes of the Eckers, making it feel more like a vanity project / overly personal labor of love than a comprehensive look at the great Tucker. And there’s just not enough film footage of Tucker in action; to make up for some of that lack, Gazecki uses animation to bring some of the photos to life, which is even sillier than it sounds. It’s still a blast learning about Tucker, watching her joke around with Jimmy Durante and her longtime pianist Ted Shapiro, following her unhappy relationship with her son, but this documentary barely brushes the surface of what appears to be a much bigger, far more exciting and fascinating story. The Outrageous Sophie Tucker opens July 24 at Cinema Village and will also have a three-day engagement at the JCC in Manhattan July 27-29 as part of the Cinematters series, with all four screenings followed by a Q&A with the film’s producers.