Shari & Lamb Chop
(USA, 92 min.)
Dir: Lisa D’Apolito
Section: Portraits (World Premiere)
Documentary cinema continues to cultivate a fascination with the characters and creators behind beloved legacies in children’s programming. Films like Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Street Gang, and Butterfly in the Sky have all explored quintessential giants of public broadcasting: Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Jim Henson and the creative team behind Sesame Street, and LeVar Burton of Reading Rainbow. (And recently Mr. Dressup on the Canadian side.) It’s hard to imagine going further back than these titans, but director Lisa D’Apolito (Love, Gilda) will not allow Shari Lewis and the beloved puppets of Lamb Chop’s Play-Along to be left behind. In fact, her new film sets the record straight right from its opening. “Shari Lewis changed the face of children’s television even before Mister Rogers,” says one piece of archival.
In her aptly titled new biodoc Shari & Lamb Chop, D’Apolito gives a long overdue tribute to Lewis, a trailblazing female multihyphenate whose unwavering work ethic and bright talent made her a five-time Emmy winner. Featuring a wide array of contemporary interviewees, from daughter Mallory Lewis to magician David Copperfield to even comedian Sarah Sherman, the film chronicles Lewis’ coming-of-age as a prodigal ventriloquist and her pioneering transition into children’s television. The film’s recollection of Lewis’ life and times is wide-spanning and comprehensive, but this unsurprisingly serves as but a gateway into D’Apolito’s more complex portrait of the human behind the hand-puppets. Lewis’ one-of-a-kind dedication to her work made her incredibly accomplished but also left her life and relationships occasionally fraught. Even if the film skitters around these edges, it still makes room for Lewis to be more complicated than a half-hour of television would allow.
The film also has a particular interest in Lamb Chop, as the title would imply, and this is where it gets really interesting. The lovable if prickly sock puppet was easily Lewis’ most beloved character, a polar opposite to her in ways that may have been by design. Many interviewees support the notion that Lamb Chop was a manifestation of Lewis’ repressed progressive politics and flirty impropriety in a society that didn’t leave room for women to perform either trait. Every one of Lewis’ characters were a part of her, but this unique dynamic made Lamb Chop inseparable from her almost to a fault. When the musical comedian’s first television show, The Shari Lewis Show, was canceled, she attempted to break into sitcoms and variety shows without Lamb Chop. However, audiences were less receptive. “I’m not your supporting act,” Lamb Chop jeers in one clip. “These people didn’t come here to see you, they came to see me.”
In the context of the original late ‘60s routine, this was in jest. However, in the film, it is given new weight. Would Shari Lewis be Shari Lewis without Lamb Chop? The film, in its admiration for Lewis, would have you believe that, yes, she is enough. However, in practice, the film is far more interesting when it centers on the pair and their fascinatingly co-dependent relationship. This is partially of Lewis’ own making: She’s just too good as Lamb Chop, a wonderful character brought to life with exceptional comedic timing and subtle characterization. However, the tension between her and Lewis (meaning the tension within Lewis herself) is a more compelling topic than merely a stroll down her greatest and not-so-greatest hits, which is how many of these celebrity-driven documentaries often boil down.
What you’re left with is a largely conventional archival documentary so interested in doing right by a forgotten female figure that it underplays the tensions that are most central to the story. Lewis herself is an endlessly watchable figure, represented in an assortment of clips from previous interviews that themselves sound like treasure troves of insight, and her unique brand of comedy and likability makes for a thoroughly watchable film. However, that’s all you’re going to get. In a crowded subgenre of documentaries focused on larger-than-life artists, Shari & Lamb Chop had the makings of meriting greater observations about its subjects. However, it never feels the need to dig deeper, making for an ironically self-satisfied movie about a woman who rarely extended herself the same grace.
Shari & Lamb Chop held its World Premiere at DOC NYC and screens again November 14.
It will be available on the festival’s virtual platform until November 26.
It is currently seeking distribution.