(2017) Documentary (Greenmachine) Darlinda Just Darlinda, Minnie Tonka, Gal Friday, Hazel Honeysuckle, Jezebel Express, Murray Hill, Duane Park, Garo Sparo, World Famous Bob, Dirty Martini, Perle Noire, Trigger, Jonny Porkpie, Val Valentine, Little Brooklyn, Shelly Watson, Gigi LaFemme, Anita Cookie, Tatah Dujour, Sailor Sinclaire, Blanche Debris. Directed by James Lester
Burlesque is an art form which is rarely considered as such; some reformed to it as “titty shows” and even less flattering epithets and dismiss it as pandering to the male desire to objectify women. This sort of opinion exists both on the left and the right.
Honestly, the opinion is about as wrong-headed as you can get. Yes, the dancers do remove their clothes and there is a sexual element to what they do but that’s only the proverbial tip of the iceberg. We see the girls developing and practicing routines putting in long hours trying to hone their craft. There is often a sly and saucy sense of humor to their sets; one particularly clever dancer did a set in a costume resembling a Dungeons and Dragons monster known as a Beholder.
This documentary focuses on the recent revival of Burlesque and focuses on a diverse selection of dancers in the New York City area and fittingly so as the epicenter of that revival has been New York although there are strong scenes in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and elsewhere as well. That revival has been a hit among hipsters but also in the LGBTQ community to a very large extent. None of the real names of the dancers are there; they all use stage names much like their antecedents did with a somewhat playfully sexual tone.
The film starts with a brief summation of the history of Burlesque and quite frankly, there are documentaries that show off that history much better than this one does but that’s all right; the object here is to concentrate on the modern take on Burlesque rather than looking back at what came before. There are plenty of docs that will give you a more comprehensive look at the somewhat checkered past of Burlesque. For all intents and purposes this movie begins with the 1996 revival that was spearheaded by the Cher/Christine Aguilera film Burlesque, a few clips from which are shown here. It’s hard to believe more than twenty years have passed since that film.
The dancers are preparing for a pair of Burlesque competitions (there’s a competition for everything and documentary filmmakers will always find them) in Las Vegas (the Burlesque Hall of Fame) and New York (the Burlesque Festival) which at least for this veteran documentary viewer gets to be pretty anti-climactic. Yes, these are important events for dancers but the viewer rarely gets invested in them in the same way.
The film shines not so much when it’s looking at the competitive aspects but on the personal ones. The stories of the ladies are fascinating and no two are exactly alike. We also get a lot more in-depth things; explanations as to why they feel empowered by taking off their clothes and what led them to do it in the first place. It is also worthy of note that not all of these women fit the traditional perceptions of beauty; some are heavyset while others have a more alternative aesthetic. Every one of them though are compelling and I daresay I couldn’t think of a reason I wouldn’t want to spend more time with any of them.
The dancing is inventive and the costumes and routines fun. The modern Burlesque dancer is into more than just twirling tassels with their breasts (although there is some of that here) but putting on a coherent show with an actual story of sorts. It is obvious that a lot of hard work and imagination goes into the creation of these routines and the viewer is sure to have a newfound respect for these women when they see the physical hardships as well as the emotional and mental ones that these ladies go through.
The background stories are compelling and the ladies for the most part articulate and thoughtful. I could have done without the two competitions – they seemed an unnecessary distraction. The movie really shines when the dancers themselves take center stage. There are a few male dancers as well (a troupe of men wins one of the competitions) and the movie doesn’t really explore the connection between the LGBTQ community and modern Burlesque but that’s okay. Those looking to see boobs and pubes may end up disappointed; much of the time nipples are covered with pasties and the crotches with panties or décor. The prurient interest factor therefore is a little bit obscured but at the end of the day this is less about the breast than it is about the rest. These are extraordinary women and you won’t be sorry to get to know them.
REASONS TO GO: The interviews with the dancers show surprising depth and self-reflection. The girls particularly Gal Friday and Hazel Honeysuckle are intriguing personalities.
REASONS TO STAY: The documentary’s format is a bit formulaic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some sexual content and a fair amount of nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its debut at the 2017 Venice Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/15/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Behind the Burly Q
FINAL RATING: 7/10