A legendary name in 20th century show business, Sophie Tucker is ripe for rediscovery, and this labor-of-love documentary will serve as a useful primer for anyone unfamiliar with her. A trailblazing performer who wasn’t beautiful or glamorous, she succeeded through the power of personality—and often risqué material. I remember watching her on The Ed Sullivan Show when I was young and wondering what the fuss was all about. Ed touted the stout, brassy entertainer as a legend and I was obliged to accept what he said even if I didn’t understand why.
Having acquired Tucker’s voluminous scrapbooks and having sought out surviving family and friends, Susan and Lloyd Ecker are committed to spreading the gospel of Sophie, like longtime admirer Bette Midler (who revels in telling bawdy stories about Tucker that may or may not be true). Personal photos, recordings, film and television appearances, newspaper clippings, and the like enable them and filmmaker William Gazecki to trace their indomitable subject’s life and career from the early days of vaudeville through the television era. Her fans included U.S. presidents and members of England’s royal family as well as ordinary folks.
Tucker’s take-no-prisoners approach to her career is vividly recalled by people who knew her like Barbara Walters, whose father Lou was a noted nightclub owner, and Tony Bennett, who worked on the same bill as Sophie when he was starting out. The always-eloquent Michael Feinstein talks about Tucker’s vocal savvy. She had promotional smarts, to boot: the woman known as “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas” maintained personal correspondence with fans so they’d be sure to come and see her when she played in their cities. She spent so many years selling copies of her autobiography after her performance that it is virtually impossible to find an unsigned copy!
On the whole, The Outrageous Sophie Tucker does what it sets out to do and show-biz buffs will certainly have a good time. I just wish it were a more inspired and fully realized portrait.