- To You Sweetheart, Aloha
To You Sweetheart, Aloha is Bill Tapia’s story. This documentary film takes its title from a 1955 song by Harry Owens, one of thousands of Hawai‘i-themed love songs confected by European American composers in the post-Tin Pan Alley era. Maudlin in its lyric construction, the song’s prosaic melody warmed in the throats of crooners like Bing Crosby and Andy Williams. In the tremulous voice of ninety-five-year-old ‘ukulele master Tapia, “To You Sweetheart, Aloha” becomes a poignant remembrance of his deceased wife and daughter, and an affectionate gesture of welcome to his new twenty-something female manager. In placing this song at the titular center of their diegetic soundtrack, filmmakers Chiang and Coats subtly exploit the triple-entendre that is “aloha”: it is at once an expression of leave-taking and salutation, and of love in its many guises.
Bill Tapia (b. 1908), who is still alive at this writing, was born and raised in Honolulu. Abandoned by his father, Tapia was pulled from school at age twelve to help support his family with his prodigious musical skill. From the vaudeville scene, he moved on to serve the tourist and entertainment industries, bouncing back and forth between Hawai‘i and California, playing and recording with some of the finest American musicians of the early- and mid-twentieth century. In the process, Tapia became a versatile ‘ukulele, guitar, steel guitar, and bass player; drawn stylistically to jazz, he applied his technique to the standards of that genre as well as the hapa-haole songs (e.g., “Little Grass Shack”) that were so much the vogue from WWI to the post-WWII era.
Focusing on Tapia’s ninety-fourth to ninety-sixth years, To You Sweetheart, Aloha simultaneously upholds and thwarts the biopic narrative blueprint for aged musical virtuosi—a blueprint that typically begins with a retrospective on early career and rise to success (often using still photos or film footage), eventual decline into obscurity and neglect, followed by a just-in-the-nick-of-time rediscovery and climactic headlining performance before a gathering of nostalgists and aficionados. Think Buena Vista Social Club (1999) and its depiction of pre-revolutionary Cuban musicians reunited in Carnegie Hall by entrepreneurial American guitarist Ry Cooder. To the extent that we learn more about Tapia and his life, this film has more in common with Young at Heart (2007), a documentary about a geriatric group in Massachusetts that prepares choral renditions of contemporary pop/rock classics such as Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia.” All three documentary films begin and end with the musicians’ culminative performance, made both triumphant and bittersweet by the experiences of aging and loss.
Where Sweetheart defies expectations is in its depiction of the relationship that develops between Tapia and Alyssa Archambault. Archambault, who like Tapia lives in California, discovers the venerable musician in her search for information about her own Hawaiian musical pedigree: her great-great-grandfather was Sam Nainoa, and her great-great-uncle was Joseph Kekuku, credited with inventing the steel guitar. Crucially, she meets Tapia just as his wife is dying, and she takes him under her managerial wing, crafting a new career for him. We see him paying his dues on the seniors’ home and ‘ukulele club circuits until Archambault arranges his return to Hawai‘i, where he is feted by local media, record producers, and fellow ‘ukulele virtuosi like Byron Yasui. Yasui marvels at the opportunity to witness a musician of Tapia’s generation live, leading us—the viewers—to anticipate some insightful analysis of his technique and musico-historical contribution. But as we watch Tapia’s career revivified and his teasing relationship with Archambault blossom, the mood slowly darkens. Tapia’s bond with his young muse, his grandchildren conclude, is too intense, and they ask Archambault to withdraw from the relationship. After repeated viewings of the film, I became inured to the drift in emotional tone and narrative focus, but was reminded of its startling, quirky quality while...