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There have been a number of documentaries on the subject of burlesque; the combination of striptease and music hall entertainments that saw its heyday in America of the early and mid- 20th century.  Director Leslie Zemeckis’ effort, Behind the Burly Q is one of the most comprehensive of these.  Zemeckis reveals not only what it was like to have been one of those spangled visions that brought a gleam to the eye of many a tired working man, but practically puts us in the seats of those forbidden palaces of old by shining the spotlight on the other acts that made up a burlesque show.

Zemeckis makes great use of an exhaustive amount of archival footage and photography that naturally highlights the goddesses of bump ‘n grind, while including the comedians, musicians and specialty acts that made up the rest of the show, but have slipped away from much of the public memory.  The interviews with the stars of the burlesque stage like strippers Tempest Storm, Kitty “Evangeline the Oyster Girl” West and Dixie “The Marilyn Monroe of Burlesque” Evans, as well as relatives of departed performers, like Chris Costello, daughter of comedian Lou Costello (- of Abbott and Costello), Sean Rand, son of striptease legend, Sally Rand, andare candid and amusing.  Alan Alda supplies humourous anecdotes about his father Robert’s beginnings as a scatologically titled crooner who plied his trade between strip acts and being himself a growing boy backstage amongst the jungle of pasties.  Of course, the primary focus of Behind the Burly Q is its ladies and their stories, many hauntingly similar; of the unhappy home lives they escaped enduring rape and other abuses to make their own way in what was then a shocking, occasionally illegal career for a young woman.

If there is a problem with Behind the Burly Q it is that there is simply too much to put in it.  Zemeckis’ thorough research of the history of burlesque and inclusion of the other performers tends to rush a lot of the personal testimonies and leads to tangents that could make for interesting chronicles in their own right.  For example, fleeting mentions of the marginalisation of Asian and African-American strippers into their own small strata only piques the audience’s interest to know their stories, as well.  The result of trying to cram in as much information as possible takes a good deal of the emotional punch out of what could have been some moving insights from those on camera.   For all of Behind the Burly Q’s accounts of life in the convivial working-class demimonde, I could’ve listened perfectly beguiled for hours.  I actually wanted to hear more of the performer’s recollections of what they actually experienced from the stage and would have liked their thoughts on the progression of the relatively wholesome burlesque of their day that required art and talent to be successful, into the soulless, grindhouse gynecological exams stripping is today.  The occasionally wonky pacing and arc is supported by the wealth of fun clips of women who knew that ya gotta get a gimmick if ya wanted to get applause, to paraphrase from the seminal stripper’s fantasy, Gypsy (– the subject of that famous myth, Gypsy Rose Lee makes an appearance here via the unloving memories of ladies who shared the stage with her.).  The devotion Zemeckis shows in these rare glimpses of this lost American pastime is evident and she takes pains to get her audience as close to that front row as possible.  Her enthusiasm and respect for her subject carries the day over whatever structural difficulties the film has.  Behind the Burly Q is a fun and affectionate look at a subject that continues to fascinate generations.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

April 23rd, 2010

 

 

 

 

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Photos

(Courtesy of  First Run Features)

 

 

 

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