2024 Milwaukee Film Festival: Day One “Shari & Lamb Chop”

After the pandemic and its drawn out aftermath, the Milwaukee Film Festival soldiered on and has returned to its non-virtual roots with an impressive lineup of films. I don’t know if we’ll ever return to pre-Covid normalcy, but this seems to be a sense of a new normal.

Last night was the gala opening on this year’s edition with SHARI & LAMB CHOP being the opening night film with a terrific party to follow.

SHARI & LAMB CHOP is an intimate cradle to the grave documentary on the life of Shari Lewis. That clearly promises to be a pleasant time in the theater, but going in I had questions. Such as, why is this a movie? What’s the hook, beyond it’s about a well beloved entertainer? And, is it going to reveal the dark secrets of Lamb Chop?

Shari & Lamb Chop

The latter question is tongue in cheek, but the other two questions aren’t. But, we can start out with the main selling point, the film had access to an enormous amount of archival footage and the cooperation of family members, so there’s a ton of footage exploring almost all phases of Shari Lewis’s life and career. And, one of the things that’s apparent early is that Shari Lewis was tremendously talented. She could sing. She could dance. She was funny. She was empathetic. And clearly she was a world class ventriloquist. That’s one thing that the film makes clear again and again, especially in how she can change voices rapidly between characters which clearly requires skill and laser sharp concentration. That she can do all that while being funny, lively, and charming is a tremendous feat. It’s no secret why she was an instant television sensation and was a true pioneer in children’s television.

It’s somewhat of a shame that the film doesn’t spend more time in that early television era. It’s clearly the era where she had the biggest cultural impact, the parallels with Fred Rogers are clear. But, there’s a whole life to showcase and her show was eventually cancelled in the early 1960s when networks turned over Saturdays to cartoons and she had to reinvent herself, while still maintaining Lamb Chop as part of the act, at a relatively early age. While there are interesting avenues that Shari Lewis went down as she maintained her life in show business, it’s really not until she worked with PBS in the latter stages of her career that she appears to be more than a really talented entertainer without a clear vehicle for her skills and personality.

I tend to feel that’s kind of the mystery of Shari Lewis. The film makes statements like Lamb Chop is revealing of her true character, but doesn’t bother to explore what that really means. In many ways, her daughter Mallory voices the deepest insight that Shari Lewis’s greatest performance was presenting “Shari Lewis” to the world with laser focus and discipline.

Perhaps I’m being a little harsh on the film, the reverence the film has for Shari Lewis appears genuine and completely non-cynical. The presentation of Shari Lewis’s many talents is done skillfully. We can all agree that Shari Lewis was a remarkable, one of a kind performer that carved out a unique space in our cultural landscape. Maybe this will spawn a rediscovery of her work. And that wouldn’t be a half-bad outcome. As a celebration of the many talents of Shari Lewis, the film works. It’s pleasant enough, but it just feels like there’s a better story that cuts deeper in the material.

SHARI & LAMB CHOP is certainly a pleasant enough start to the film festival. And it plays one more time on Friday, April 12, 2024 at 12:30 PM at the Downer Theatre.

The 2024 Milwaukee Film Festival runs from April 11, 2024 until April 25, 2024. Tickets can be purchased via MKEFILM.ORG.