If you were to look back on some of the great international singing divas of the twentieth century, the names of Edith Piaf, Maria Callas and Judy Garland roll off the tongue with ease. While Piaf moved audiences with dramatically aching ballads, Callas seduced with sonorous operatic arias and Garland belted out musical classics with violent vibratos, Jewish singer Roza Eskenazi, who became Greece’s biggest musical export in the 1930s, appears to have been consigned to the dusty musical archives of a by-gone era, remembered only by those of a certain generation located around the Aegean sea. In his film My Sweet Canary, director Roy Sher intends to revive the memory of the forgotten songstress, employing a group of three young musicians to retrace her journey from Turkey to Greece and explore the cultural significance of Eskenazi’s legacy and its impact on the lives of young Aegean musicians today.
Eskenazi was born in Constantinople in the 1890s, the exact date unknown due to her desire to remain younger the older she became. Moving to Thessaloniki as a young child, the family rented accommodation near the Grand Hotel Theatre, cementing her ambition to become a performer. Despite a penurious childhood, family disapproval and an attempt by Greek dictator Ioannis Metaxas to censor rebetiko due to its subversive content, she rose to international acclaim in the 1930s with her powerful vocal range in the Greek urban rebetiko tradition.
The three young musicians travel to the most significant places in Eskenazi’s career to recreate her most memorable songs with local musicians, while second hand accounts from those who knew her, paint a panegyric of an artist, a singer, a dancer but predominantly, a career driven diva. The film results in a staccato-like synopsis of her back catalogue of hits without ever really delving into the intimate side of the woman whose backstage performances were just as theatrical as those onstage. An illegitimate son, an affair with a Gestapo officer and a lifelong affair with a man twenty years her junior, equip the director with enough scope to balance the film between public success and private complexities but while such affairs are alluded to they are never fully explored.
Given the seditious tone and urban, marginalised philosophy of rebetiko music, a further investigation into the private Eskenazi would have been beneficial to align her musical success with that of urban musical culture. While the recordings certainly attest to the magnificence of her voice you cannot help but feel slightly cheated at not fully unmasking the woman behind the myth. As fans of Piaf, Callas and Garland can attest to, it is the knowledge of star’s private tribulations that heighten the significance of musical performances and keep the legend alive long after they have gone. It is a film well worth seeing nonetheless and you will come away learning a lot about the rich tradition of rebetiko music; you just may not learn as much about Roza Eskenazi as you would hope.
My Sweet Canary is released in selected UK Cineworld cinemas on 7 November