Directed by Sundance Audience Award winning filmmaker Heather Lyn MacDonald, Been Rich All My Life follows the most unlikely troupe of tap dancers. They are the "Silver Belles," five women aged 84 to 96. In their heyday they worked at some of Harlem's most prestigious haunts, performing with legendary band leaders like Cab Calloway, Jimmie Lunceford and Duke Ellington. They met in the 1930's as chorus dancers at the Apollo and the Cotton Club. When the big band era ended, and with it the need for show dancers, they all went into other work. They regrouped in 1985, put their shoes back on and — sassy as they ever were — are still performing regularly. They may not kick as high, but they are hip-swaying and show-biz savvy. These women will disrupt any notions you have of old age.
Each of the Silver Belles has a distinctive, idiosyncratic personality and dance style. They share a love of dance, and the ability to flirt with their audience. "We mug more now than we used to," explains Marion Coles. "I light up like a Christmas tree when I go out there, the right music will just push you," adds Fay Ray. "I may be old, but I'm not cold!" exclaims Bertye Lou Wood, the eldest.
The film is lively and humor-filled, sparkling with the verve and candor of these inspiring women. We follow them from their rehearsals at the Cotton Club, to their shows — and over the bumps in between. They perform to standing ovations at concert halls around the city, working with dancers some 60 years younger. We enjoy their weekly rehearsals, their love of their craft, the music, and the laughter and arguments of a friendship that has continued for over 70 years.
We also hear some of the rich stories they have to tell about the history they made during the Harlem Renaissance. At the Apollo Theater, where they worked 15 hour days, rehearsing and performing a new show each week, these chorus girls led the historic strike that established the American Guild of Variety Artists. Archival film and photos from the 1920's to the 1950's, often from their own closets, blend into the present narrative (e.g., film footage of Bertye dancing with Bill Bojangles Robinson, Cleo Hayes in Stormy Weather, or Marion lindy-hopping at the Savoy). The music ranges over eight decades of jazz styles, the honky tonk sounds of the 20's, the big bands of the 30's and 40's (some of it written especially for these dancers), the bebop of the 50's — to the rhythms of contemporary jazz as the ladies travel the streets of their neighborhoods today.
Despite their vitality, all is not easy, and the story becomes more complicated. In one week, Cleo tumbles down the subway stairs and breaks her knee and arm, Marion gets a pacemaker, and Bertye is taken to the hospital. Is this the end of the Silver Belles? "It's only a speed bump," insists their manager, but we are not likely to believe her. Cleo is in casts from toe to hip, confined to the hospital for intensive therapy. Will she dance again? Meanwhile, Bertye is ordered to use a walker. When she doesn't and breaks her hip, her fiercely guarded independence is put into serious question. In the end, Cleo returns victorious to perform again with the troupe, and Bertye dies. Bertye's memorial ends with everyone on their feet —legendary hoofers side by side with younger tap prodigies — all dancing the still traditional show-closer, the "Shim Sham Shimmy."
BEEN RICH ALL MY LIFE was funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, Peter Jay Sharp Foundation, the New York State Council on the Arts and the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation. Additional funding was provided by JPMorgan Chase and the Ford Foundation. A sponsored project of the New York Foundation for the Arts.