(2010) Documentary (First Run) Alan Alda, Sally Rand, Lily St. Cyr, Lou Costello, Tempest Storm, Margie Hart, Blaze Starr, Kitty West, June Lee, Lorraine Lee, Vicki O’Day, Sara Jacobs, David Kruh, Dixie Evans, Janet M. Davis, Nat Bodian. Directed by Leslie Zemeckis
Before there was internet porn, before there was Playboy there was burlesque. Often people make the mistake of thinking it was all boobs and butts but in reality there was much more to it than that. There were singers, comedians and other performing acts.
Burlesque was considered a step below vaudeville due to the prurient nature of the shows. Burlesque was the province of the strippers, of Sally Rand, Tempest Storm and Lily St. Cyr. It was raucous horns, tassels and pasties. Burlesque theaters were looked down upon in their day, tolerated to a certain extent but thought to be extremely low class.
These days burlesque is undergoing a bit of a renaissance as hipsters are discovering the joys of burlesque comedy and scantily clad women. That’s what makes it a good time to make a documentary about the heyday of burlesque.
Of course it’s a bit of a slam dunk as naked female breasts are generally going to attract plenty of male attention, and there are plenty of bare breasts here. There are also plenty of interviews, some of which are more revealing (in a personal level, get your mind out of the gutter) than others. The problem is that there is so many of them that they tend to blend in all together.
There is a good deal of archival footage but I’d like to have seen more. Talking heads telling stories about life back in the day are all well and good, but I think more performance footage might have been a little more welcome.
Most of the talking heads are the performers themselves, now mostly in their 70s and 80s. There are a few children (Alda’s dad Robert was a straight man in a burlesque act and also provided musical accompaniment) and spouses as well as siblings. There are also some historians and authors to provide some perspective which is needed.
The stories are for the most part pretty fascinating although, to be honest, near the end they began to blend together a little bit. You do get a sense of the camaraderie between the girls as well as the competition between them; you also get a sense that like any job some of it was wonderful and some of it was pretty awful. That there was drug abuse and sexual abuse in the theaters is documented but whether it was to the same degree that exists in modern strip clubs is anybody’s guess – those sorts of things were swept under the rug back then.
Burlesque merits a serious documentary and while this makes an attempt to capture the magic, it simply doesn’t. I haven’t yet seen This Is…Burlesque! which is another documentary on the subject but for the time being, I’m still waiting to find the movie that will truly bring burlesque to life for me.
WHY RENT THIS: Fascinating look at a bygone era and of women who were sexual at a time when sexuality in women was verboten.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Becomes overwhelming at times; too many interviews.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of sexuality, some nudity and some bad language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Zemeckis is the wife of director Robert (Forrest Gump) Zemeckis and has produced a burlesque revival show that has played in clubs around the Los Angeles area.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a featurette on a burlesque performer reunion in Las Vegas, a timeline of the burlesque theater, a look at the costumes and memorabilia of the era and an interview with director Zemeckis in which the origins of the project are discussed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $23,889 on an unreported production budget; I have a sense that it probably didn’t make money theatrically.
FINAL RATING: 4/10
TOMORROW: Fantasia 2000