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SXSW: Jackie Shane Disappearance Mystery Solved in ‘Any Other Way’ Documentary

A host of conspiracy theories surrounded the sudden disappearance of pioneering transgender soul singer Jackie Shane from the music world in 1971 after she packed Toronto nightclubs during the 1960s, only to resurface when news of her death in Nashville broke in 2019.

Despite leaving the public eye, the Nashville-born R&B performer’s celebrated, yet complicated legacy lived on in Jackie Shane Live, a bootlegged 1967 live set recording of Shane performing at Toronto’s famed Saphire Tavern that caught the ear of local filmmaker and music fan Michael Mabbott.

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Mabbott talked to The Hollywood Reporter before his documentary, Any Other Way: The Jackie Shane Story — which he co-directed with Lucah Rosenberg-Lee and is executive produced by Elliot Page — world premieres at the South by Southwest Festival on Saturday.

“I was just so intrigued by her story, but no one knew anything besides she had disappeared, with very mysterious rumors and conjecture that she’d been murdered or died. The more I dug in, the less answers I came up with and the more intrigued I became, Mabbott recalled.

He eventually teamed up with fellow Toronto filmmaker Rosenberg-Lee to helm Any Other Way: The Jackie Shane Story to unravel for the first time the mystery of where Shane lived as a recluse until her passing. The film’s title references Shane’s popular 1963 song, “Any Other Way,” which hit No. 2 on Toronto radio singles chart, but never reached the top because local radio market leader CHUM FM refused to give it play.

Jackie Shane
Jackie Shane

For Rosenberg-Lee, the doc was designed for fans of Shane’s music and those coming to her story for the first time, nearly 50 years after her life of Greta Garbo-like isolation and solitude began. “The film needed to feel contemporary, as well as interesting enough, for people who had never heard of her or people who had just heard her album and are generally curious about what happened to this person,” Rosenberg-Lee tells THR.

In a popular music industry that glorifies stardom, the feature doc captures Shane, by choice, performing under the radar. The 1950s soul singer electrified the Nashville music scene, but eventually sought refuge in Canada from being dismissed as a cross-dressing gay man, long before people had the language to allow a Black transgender woman and entertainer to be accepted.

“She identified as she behind closed doors and to her mother and herself, but in the public eye there was no opportunity to do that, and no one would have understood,” Rosenberg-Lee, himself a Black trans man, points out.

That left Shane fearful to share her musical talents in the 1950s Jim Crow-era America, until touring and a carnival gig led her to Toronto, where she could at long last feel free to be herself on stage as she straddled the binary worlds of Black and white and male and female.

But eventually, the demands of touring, performing and being an anthem singer for gay Torontonians still in the closet took its toll and Shane vanished from public view for privacy and to live the life she designed for herself. “One of the big reasons she stepped away was so she could live more in her true transition — mentally, physically and emotionally  — and have a relationship and not be in the public eye and have that scrutiny,” Mabbott explains.

Before vanishing from the public eye in 1971, Shane turned down career-launching invites to perform on The Ed Sullivan Show because the show’s producers wouldn’t allow her to wear makeup on stage, and American Bandstand because that TV music performance and dance show wouldn’t allow young Black people in the audience.

“I mean, you use our music, but our kids can’t dance on your show. How dare you ask me to come there under those circumstances. I get so angry my people can’t come in and to hear and see me. No way! I would never, ever work there,” the SXSW doc captures Shane saying at one point.

To be herself, Shane went first to Los Angeles to care for her mother and then back to Nashville where she lived for over four decades in seclusion, barely even leaving her house. Mabbott eventually reached out to Shane and, after a year of ignored emails and phone calls, she finally returned contact.

The filmmaker talked to Shane by phone once a week for over a year to lay the groundwork for a documentary about the pioneering R&B singer’s career and life. “I knew she felt it was incredibly and increasingly important for her story to be told. Talking to me, she was doing a part of that,” Mabbott adds.

Their long-distance phone calls were done to help develop the documentary and the plan was always to properly capture Shane speaking on camera. “Of course, the phone calls were just for a backstory. The plan was always to sit down and actually interview her properly,” Mabbott recalls.

“But then she passed away, and that was impossible,” he adds. That leaves Any Other Way, co-produced by Amanda Burt of Banger Films and Justine Pimlott of the NFB, anchored by the never-before-heard phone calls to tell Shane’s story.

And because the filmmakers had no footage of Shane performing aside from a 1965 appearance on Night Train, a local Nashville music TV show where she sang, performing Rufus Thomas’ “Walking the Dog,” they used rotoscope animation to portray much of her life and performances up until 1971, and then Shane on the phone in her home.

Through that animation, Any Other Way recaptured how Shane on stage — adorned in make-up, long hair and silk suits — and in the phone conversations offered an uncompromising message of self-love and acceptance from a trailblazing queer icon and performer.

“It’s an intimate thing between me and those people in that room. I had to feel them. I had to look into their eyes. I have to bring them to me, so that we can get into this thing together. I want you to come with me and let’s do this. And we will never forget this evening, because I’m going to get right inside of you, I’m going to touch that part that you didn’t even know was there,” Shane recalled of her stage act in one phone call recording included in the film.

The documentary also features her distant family members discovering her legacy after her death, a library of newspaper clippings and glittery stage costumes rescued from her Nashville home, and others inspired by Shane’s tenacity as a trans woman to stay true to her principles and not compromise for fame.

Today, over 50 years after she vanished from the stage lights in 1971, Mabbot is anxious to ensure they did right by Shane in telling her life story in the Any Other Way film to bow in Austin, Texas this weekend. “We, the whole crew, everybody got the fact that we had to do her story justice, the fact that she laid her story and how she wanted that story told. She was the North Star. I worry to this day. I talk to her to this day. She’s not here to say you got it, we did it,” an emotional Mabbott adds.

UTA is selling the U.S. rights to Any Other Way: The Jackie Shane Story, and the National Film Board of Canada is handling the rest of the world.

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