‘Any Other Way: The Jackie Shane Story’ Review: Solving R&B Mystery


A distinctive, dynamic R&B vocalist who seemed on the verge of major stardom through the 1960s, Jackie Shane disappeared soon after — so completely that many fans and former associates assumed her dead. It was a riddle rendered all the more mysterious by her singular status within that field as a more-or-less “out” transperson, her persona an assertive exercise in gender-blur before that term existed. Michael Mabbott and Lucah Rosenberg-Lee’s documentary “Any Other Way” combines archival materials, interviews and animated reenactments into a compelling investigation of an elusive life, as well as a talent so striking you’ll be amazed it remained forgotten for so long. 

Born in 1940 Nashville to an unmarried teenage mother who quickly abandoned the child to be raised by relatives, Shane grew up teased by peers as a “sissy,” albeit nurtured by an accepting aunt and grandmother. Jackie was still pre-adolescent when asked to sing in the adult church choir. Not much later, entree was made into the town’s lively, blues-driven Black music scene (well-separate from its white country one), first as a drummer. Hired as vocal frontperson for local favorite Jimmy Church’s band, she was soon playing on other acts’ recording sessions and making influential friends like Little Richard. 

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In one of many excerpts from telephone interviews made just before her demise a few years ago, she recalls soul luminary Joe Tex advising to “get out of the South … you’ll never become who you could become here.” She duly hit the road as part of an R&B venue whose tent traveled with a carnival. When they crossed the Canadian border, Shane found the cultural climate more welcoming, choosing to stay on and move to 1959 Montreal. 

A hopping mob-controlled nightlife milieu fast adopted her as an attraction, leading to absorption into novelty “dual trumpeter” Frank Motley’s popular ensemble. They made Toronto their base, scoring long-term venue gigs, releasing singles (including this film’s 1963 title track) and opening for marquee acts like Etta James and The Temptations. In 1967 they recorded a live album at the Saphire Club that is the most vivid memento of an alternately raucous and elegant vocal style, with a bonus in flavorful between-song monologues. 

Alas, there is only one brief video record of Shane, looking a bit stiff but sounding great on a 1965 episode of the short-lived, Nashville-shot TV music program “Night Train.” Reportedly she refused an invite to appear on “The Ed Sullivan Show” when they insisted on a strictly masculine appearance — from a performer already known for ultra-glam makeup and wardrobe — then turned down “American Bandstand” to protest its segregated, mostly white dancers. Whether the lack of commercial breakthrough was a factor, or personal issues, no one seems to know why Shane simply vanished from the spotlight in 1971. Decades later, she’d only say ambiguously that “You’ve got to know when to leave the ball.” 

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She died in 2019 at age 78, having been a virtual recluse for close to half a century. A forced return to Nashville had trapped her there, unable to afford another move, understanding family members dying off and others incommunicado. When two nieces were informed they’d inherited the estate of “a very special aunt,” they were unaware she existed — let alone that she’d “lived up the street” for 40 years. 

Combing through a treasure trove of elegant vintage clothes, jewelry and career memorabilia, the women discovered an unpublished autobiographical text. It was also news to them that Jackie had tentatively re-entered the limelight before her demise, approving a CD-box-set retrospective that got nominated for a Grammy. She’d even considered a return to performance — while refusing to be photographed, or interviewed in person.

Those who do get interviewed on-screen here run a gamut from surviving family friends and professional colleagues (including Jimmy Church). It’s unclear if any among them stayed in touch during her long hibernation; at times there’s too much space given over to speculations from the nieces, latter-day transgender performers and others who never met her. (This is particularly annoying once we learn Shane moved to Los Angeles in the early ’70s with a male domestic partner, a relationship that didn’t last — and all these strangers weigh in with guesses as to why.) 

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In her phone interviews, she seems to be living in a glittering past that both elevated and bruised, while preferring to keep any unpleasant details cloudy. As a result, the person beneath the persona remains enigmatic — but whenever heard in song, that voice has a bracing, confident immediacy. 

The directors do a fine job compensating for a subject who left almost no filmic record behind, limning the vibrant nocturnal cultures of several cities’ yesteryears with colorful old on-the-street footage. (Petula Clark was right: In the mid-’60s, it really did look like “Things will be great when you’re downtown.”) They literally illustrate Shane’s sometimes specific, sometimes vague reminiscences with impressionistic scenes shot live-action, then animated by Luca Tarantini and Jared Raab in a painterly style that lends “Any Other Way” considerable aesthetic richness. 

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