Sophie Tucker.

Sophie Tucker. Credit: The Sophie Tucker Project

A combination Mae West and Bessie Smith, Sophie Tucker could count among her contemporaries the phonograph, the motion picture and the microphone, the last of which she barely needed. Her voice was a cross between a brass bell and a jet engine, and her way with a song made her one of the more important singers of the first part of the 20th century. Fewer and fewer people have a first-person memory of her, unless they're old enough to have watched Ed Sullivan, but William Gazecki's heartfelt portrait all but brings her back to life.

His problem, of course, is introducing Tucker to the average viewer, who'll likely have no clue to who she is, while at the same time creating some narrative traction amid his documentary's performance footage, archival clips and well-informed talking heads. The chief voices in the film are its producers, Tucker biographers Lloyd and Susan Ecker, who know everything about their subject but don't have much in the way of a story arc to work with.

Tucker was the classic immigrant success story, born to Jewish Ukrainian parents on the boat to America. She played in blackface, performed in the Ziegfeld Follies, introduced songs by unknown songwriters (like Irving Berlin), raised money for Israel and once defied the Ku Klux Klan by presenting the black star Josephine Baker at a Miami nightclub. But her story is one mostly of forward momentum. She shrugged off bad husbands and made her substantial weight a big part of her shtick. As Tucker scholar Jan Lewis says, she was a marketing genius, and instinctively knew all about branding when the term was usually confined to cattle ranches.

She was also a brilliant musician. It's rather poignant that Tony Bennett, who pays enormous tribute to Tucker here, also appears extensively in "Amy," the current doc about Amy Winehouse, who has more in common with Tucker than one might immediately assume. Both were natural jazz singers, co-opted a black aesthetic without sacrificing personal style and were underrated as artists because their personalities eclipsed their art. The big difference was that Tucker was a survivor, and a businesswoman who stayed in business for 58 years.

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