Friday, July 17, 2009

AAIFF ’09: You Don’t Know Jack

He co-starred with John Wayne and was the first Asian-American artist signed to Motown Records. He was a trailblazer for Asian Americans both on Broadway and network television, but millions only know him as Sgt. Nick Yemana on Barney Miller. The full significance of Soo’s career is now celebrated in Jeff Adachi’s documentary You Don’t Know Jack (trailer here), which screens at the upcoming 2009 Asian American International Film Festival.

Jack Soo was actually Goro Suzuki. After spending time in FDR’s internment camps as a teenager, Soo found it prudent to change his name to the Chinese sounding Soo as he began his show business career in the Midwest. A talented but scuffling singer and comedian, Soo was introduced to his future wife by big band trumpeter Harry James in Ohio, at a time when inter-racial romance was not exactly encouraged.

Soo’s big break came as the lead in the Broadway production, touring company, and film of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song. Given the popularity of the cast album, it made sense for a label to sign him. Unfortunately, it was Motown, where Berry Gordy would bury his recording of “For Once in My Life,” in favor of Stevie Wonder’s rendition (in yet another dubious dealing of the controversial hit-maker). Adachi’s film rescues his heartfelt slower version, recorded with soaring strings prior to the familiar Wonder record, playing what sounds like a well-worn test pressing in its entirety.

Adachi interviews many of Soo’s surviving family members and professional colleagues, including Nancy Kwan from the Drum Song movie, as well as Steve Landesberg and Max Gail from Barney Miller. George Takei (a.k.a. Lt. Sulu) also provides insightful commentary and context. However, Janet Waldo, Soo’s co-star on the shortlived ABC sitcom Valentine’s Day, seems to overstate the popularity of their show, given its speedy cancelation, and quality, considering the corniness of the selected clips. Still, her larger point regarding Soo’s carefully cultivated cool cat image remains valid.

At just over an hour in total running time, audiences should sit through Jack’s credits for one of the film’s best images: a candid shot with John Wayne during the making of the under-appreciated The Green Berets. Indeed, Adachi judiciously selected film and photos of Soo that nicely conveys his dry wit and laidback coolness. The film briskly and convincingly makes the case for Soo’s importance as an actor and entertainer, over and above his individual roles. It screens Saturday (7/25) at the Chelsea Cinemas as part of this year’s AAIFF.