Bill Tapia is a pioneer of the little stringed instrument.

‘Aloha’ fills

Film examines the rich legacy
of ukulele virtuoso Bill Tapia

Ninety-six years old and still a concert-caliber performer, ukulele virtuoso Bill Tapia is not your typical old-time Hawaiian musician. Born in Honolulu on New Year's Day 1908, he's been playing the ukulele for 89 years, and playing professionally for almost that long.

"To You Sweetheart, Aloha"

USA, part of the festival's Hawaii Panorama 9 showcase

Playing at 6:30 p.m. tomorrow on Sunset on the Beach in Waikiki and 7:15 p.m. Sunday at the Dole Cannery cineplex

Rating: * * * *

Details: HIFF runs through Oct. 31. Tickets are $8. Check the Web site hiff.org for a schedule, or call 528-4433.

But there's more, however, to Tapia's current high profile as a concert act and recording artist than longevity and good health, and filmmakers Mercedes Coats and S. Leo Chiang approach his experiences from a perspective that makes their documentary film, "To You Sweetheart, Aloha" much more than the standard retrospective on the life and times of a venerable musical legend. The resulting film is a fascinating portrait of a colorful and talented man that also raises broader issues outside of the man and the music.

Academic talking-head types are conspicuously absent from the narrative, with little time spent addressing how Tapia's playing style may differ from those currently in vogue, and surprisingly little information is provided on Tapia's first 90 years. One reason for that may be because he spent most of his life playing jazz and swing music, and because he left Hawaii for good in 1948 -- out of sight, out of mind, as far as the local music scene was concerned.

Another reason could be because Tapia did not do much as a Hawaiian recording artist. He made a legendary recording of "Stars and Stripes Forever" in the mid-1930s that was apparently not commercially released until 2004.

Coats and Chiang include recent footage of Tapia playing here with Byron Yasui, Benny Chong and Lyle Ritz, but his significance as an innovator in the 1920s and '30s isn't emphasized. (Yasui told the Star-Bulletin in 2002 that Tapia came up with ideas that were subsequently popularized by others.)

WHERE THE filmmakers excel is in their nonjudgmental documentation of Tapia's controversial relationship with his friend and sometime manager, Alyssa Kauanakinilani Archambault -- a 28-year-old woman young enough to be his granddaughter -- whose friendship was the catalyst that renewed his interest in life after the death of both his beloved wife, Barbie, and his only daughter, Cleo, in 2001. Archambault met Tapia while researching her Hawaiian ancestors' musical legacy and encouraged him to resume playing the ukulele and sharing his music once again. She booked performances for him, promoted him on her radio show, set up recording sessions that eventually resulted in the release of his first CD, "Tropical Swing," earlier this year, and assumed the roles of manager and caretaker when he traveled.

The two agree that they spend more time with each other than with anyone else. Tapia also says that he loves Archambault like his loves his grandchildren and says "If I was younger, I'd marry her in a minute."

Chiang and Coats also show that comments like those made some of Tapia's grandchildren uneasy. They all seem to agree that Tapia has recovered from his grief and is happy with Archambault in his life, but some express vague fears that she is somehow taking advantage of him. No one is particularly clear about what they think she's doing, but one of them explains that "She's not defining the parameters of the relationship clearly enough for him."

But what are the parameters of this relationship? The level of intimacy that may have developed between Tapia and Archambault remains enigmatic. The amount of money -- if any -- that Archambault stands to make as his manager, or might inherit as his widow, is not specified. It's clear, however, that Tapia is much happier when Archambault is in his life than when she's not.

One of the documentary's lighter moments is when Tapia and Archambault visit Sereno Street in Liliha and he describes how the neighborhood looked when he was growing up there 80 years ago.

There's also ample performance footage that captures the magic of Tapia's musical artistry. At a time when some young virtuosos approach the ukulele from a rock 'n' roll perspective, Tapia is a living link to the pioneer players of a century ago. "To You Sweetheart, Aloha" is also a very moving and personal story about a remarkable man who, even though he has outlived his wife and only child, has been fortunate enough to find new reasons to embrace life, share his music with a new generation of fans, and go on living.

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