"Grey Gardens: From East Hampton to Broadway" is a documentary about a Broadway musical that is based on a documentary. If that has a certain snake-eating-tail improbability to it, well, the Grey Gardens story of two eccentric former socialites is, in any medium, all about improbability.
In 1976, Albert and David Maysles' film "Grey Gardens," introduced increasingly cultish audiences to Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Edith Bouvier Beale. Big Edie and Little Edie were the aunt and first cousin of former First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. After losing their fortune through divorce and other familial fractures, they lived in what can be characterized only as squalor on a moldering East Hampton, N.Y., estate, surrounded by the requisite 3 million cats and assorted wildlife, mainly raccoons.
Their situation came to public attention in the early 1970s when the Suffolk County Department of Health threatened to condemn Grey Gardens. The picaresque Miss Havisham isolation, not to mention their instant appeal to Kennedy watchers, drew media attention.
The Maysles, who were introduced to the Beales during their work on a film about the Bouviers, fell in love with the two women and their odd and infectious refusal to play to type.
The now iconic film turned out to be less about socialites fallen on hard times as it was the portrait of two women in a strange and lovely relationship, with each other and reality. Rotting walls and scattered trash notwithstanding, Big Edie and Little Edie seemed happy. They sang, they danced, they wore hats and turbans, and spoke with the fey insight of well-educated eccentrics.
In hindsight, a Broadway musical seemed inevitable.
"Grey Gardens: From East Hampton to Broadway" tells the story of how the Beales went from cult-film classic to Broadway smash, mainly through the dogged determination of composer Scott Frankel, who felt a kinship with the women's utter rejection of the life society had prescribed for them.
Everyone had to be convinced, from lyricist Michael Korie to dramatist Doug Wright, but in the end the thing was done and what opened as a small off-Broadway musical soon moved to the Walter Kerr Theatre, where it racked up 10 Tony nominations, three of which it won.
But the most fascinating aspect about this documentary remains the Beales -- the clips of the original "Grey Gardens," the memories of Albert Maysles, Little Edie's reaction to her newfound fame -- but also how various people project their own experiences and psychologies onto the women.
Hanging over their home is the air of tragedy, but in their faces and their voices, there is unvarnished joy.
It's not surprising that an HBO movie is in the works; as "Grey Gardens: From East Hampton to Broadway" proves, the exhilaration of an unfettered life is a wonder to behold.
'Independent Lens: Grey Gardens: From East Hampton
When: 10 tonight
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14)