Easy it is to declare an artist as ahead of their time or at the front of a curve in changing attitudes, Stephen Sondheim was. Constantly. His consistency in being at the heart of what was next makes him a timeless charmer and despite his passing, his name still echoes along with the same reverence he held in the prime of his efforts. Six by Sondheim does its best to evaluate this and attempts to understand the father of American music. He is more than that. He exceeds the moniker associated with him and heaped onto him in this HBO Series. A legend of his craft whose influence and efforts will far outweigh anything someone writing about him while necking cans of zero-sugar orange pop could hope for. Sondheim, as he admits here, did not know why he wanted to write. Why bother knowing?
Sondheim has his life extracted from interviews both recent and early. Digging deep into those archives, bringing them out and adapting them, whether as a straight-shooting documentary segment or a performance of his finer works from Jarvis Cocker and company. Six by Sondheim may struggle to marry those tones and inflict whiplash of a constant, changing variety, it earns it through dedicating itself to the rapid life of a prolific worker. Intimate conversations with the only man who gives a platform to annoying theatre kids, the infernal, internal battle rages on. Sondheim’s work is wonderful and his portrayal here, in the various interview shots of the man himself, is tremendous. He is about the moment in which he writes, so passionate and moved by what he perceives.
Intimacies like this are a rare treat for those who appreciate and respect the work of a creative. Sondheim is a treat to hear, and of course, his music is too. Cocker performs in a Todd Haynes-directed segment which goes a long way in cementing the mood and smoky tone Sondheim could take with his lyrics. Not everyone can pick up eight Grammy awards, an Academy Award and a Pulitzer, but not everyone was as incredibly unique as Sondheim and the work he presented. Even those miles away from Broadway, as thankful as they may be to be far away from the hellscape of theatre, can appreciate the incredible, relentless productivity which cocktails and lying down can engage. That was his writing process. Give it a whirl. Never get up.
Someone said he was sincere, so he is here, to pull from a Sondheim lyric. Sincerity. It is crucial to Six by Sondheim, a documentary which benefits greatly from the editing skills of Miky Wolf. He etches together what serve as close memoirs of a formidable and deeply influential writer. West Side Story through to Follies and Merrily We Roll Along. Nobody needs to know about the latter two. Why bother? Steven Spielberg brought Sondheim back to relevancy, or at least he did for those Disney kids who are drip-fed terrible adaptations. Six by Sondheim shows the longevity of great work, and the features which followed the demise of the great composer and lyricist are testament to that, and his assured legacy.