The history of a complex popular art rendered with little complication

Behind the Burly Q

on April 19, 2010 by Sara Schieron
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Doc about the history and heyday of Burlesque (a.k.a. The Burly Q) pays close attention to the anecdotes and important women of the field but plays fast and loose with genre, swinging from comedy to drama without much buffer in between. Burlesque has inspired fascination in part because it brokers sexual displays that are often as earnest as they are satirical. The form has been at the cusp of art, the cusp of law and the cusp of seriousness since its earliest Vaudeville origins. Theatrical opening in 2 theaters (New York April 23 an LA May 7) ensures distributor First Run Features a small draw, but as the majority of those interested in the old pop-art entertainment aren’t married to the major metro centers DVD will likely be where “bang” meets “buck” for this title.

The heavyweights of the field are addressed here in parts: the famous comedians that introduced the dancers (Abbott and Costello among them), the managers who harangued the performers, entrepreneurs like Harold Minsky (a sort of Howard Hughes of the field) and the major name dancers whose performances featured props as extravagant as monkeys, reptiles and giant collapsible clam shells.

Diablo Cody blogged about her career as a stripper moons before we ever knew her name from Juno, and that blog was a massive, post-modern unpacking: empowerment, degradation, exploitation and kindness were all part of a highly chaotic dance—and then there was money. Major themes like that aren’t explicitly handled in Behind the Burly Q, not because the dancers here aren’t strippers but probably because they’re from a different generation. For the ex-burlesque dancers director Leslie Zemeckis interviews here, themes like iniquity and demoralization seem altogether too personal to dig through. (And who better to understand and protect their own privacies than those paid to display?) With names like “Rose La Rose,” “Blaze Starr” and “Candy Cotton,” these burlesque glitterati attended their careers on the stage with ingenuity, pride and caution. Now into the fall and winter of their lives, they’re cordial and upbeat about their work, many describing their time as dancers as high points in their lives. The literal threats of the field (prowlers, mobsters, Tonya Harding style competitive dancers) are only addressed momentarily. Those issues didn’t overwhelm the accomplishment of earning in a field that used glamour to exploit the broad and sometimes sardonic performance of feminine wiles—if we can, in fact, say that’s what’s on parade.

I’m not sure Behind the Burly Q, as opposed to a contemporary take on the form like A Wink and A Smile, actually needs to engage in the sort of criticism a more modern perspective on burlesque might proffer. Part of the point of speaking to the original dancers is to glean from their experiences the perspectives that went with them, in which case pushing things like body theory or feminism (which is mentioned alongside porn as a possible cause for the end of Burlesque) might be an inappropriate direction. What Zemeckis takes interest in are the broad strokes issues and she uses her interviewees’ anecdotes to fill in the soft side of the story. The contradictions and dissonances aren’t given much screen time: Alan Alda’s sweet reminiscences of his father’s Vaudeville shows and dancer colleagues reiterate the family orientation of the bawdy fair but don’t attempt to excavate the awkwardness that might be present there or the culture that situation inspired. Still, this doc contributes to the small collection of films on burlesque something more self-aware looks at the matter don’t: an exposition of the messy history of a complex popular art that still leaves us with much to explore.

Distributor: First Run Features
Director/Screenwriter: Leslie Zemeckis
Producer: Leslie Zemeckis, Sheri Hellard and Jackie Levine
Genre: Documentary
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 97 min.
Release date: April 23 NY, May 7 LA

Tags: pop art, sexuality, true story, history, burlesque
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