REVIEW: Nifty Burly Q Sets the Burlesque Record Straight
Assembled as a rough oral history of a brief but transitional moment in American entertainment, Behind the Burly Q is as determinedly upbeat as the consummate showgirls at its heart. Director Leslie Zemeckis (wife of Robert, who is listed as executive producer) focuses on some of the largely forgotten women who came up during the newly permissive Jazz Age, merged with the struggling vaudeville racket, and originated a vampy form of striptease called burlesque.
Though the word's secondary definition -- a performance involving dancing and stripping -- is more familiar to those who have seen neo-burlesque surge and re-surge through the night club scene in recent years, the primary meaning, which involves the humorous or mocking treatment of a solemn subject, interests Zemeckis as well. Though the two definitions might seem contradictory to anyone who has seen a row of men crouching, with grim intensity, at the brass rail of the gyno-fest that is the modern strip club, in the early days of burlesque swinging boobs and titillation were a form of comedy that fit right in with stand-ups and jugglers. That this attitude survived for even a short time in a puritan-bred country like this one seems like a minor miracle, if one that Zemeckis treats as gingerly as she does the now-aged, wonderfully pragmatic dancers.
Though she has done some remarkable digging through the archives, Zemeckis tends to pan over the same photo in seven different ways, Biography Channel-style; even when almost-bare, gloriously natural boobs are involved, one's eyes start to glaze. What she doesn't skimp on is the interview subjects themselves: at least a dozen women and a number of comedians and club-owners appear, giving testimony to the good and bad old days of "burlesk." Structurally challenged (unlike its ladies) and anxious to cram in as much anecdotal material as possible, the documentary takes off like a shot, and the names and faces and funny stories quickly become hard to follow; in the first half hour several women appear only to be bum-rushed off the stage as soon as their arcs are complete. The story of the Rowland sisters, for instance, told by the only surviving one, flashes by before you can process which of the three dancers died tragically, which committed suicide, and how kidnapping, amputation and marriage to a baron were wedged into their brief lives.
Zemeckis settles into a less hectic rhythm and a few of the faces become familiar. Most memorable is Tempest Storm, a redhead with an ambition that did not ingratiate her to her chief competition, Blaze Starr (whose interview was done by phone). Dixie Evans, Beverly Arlynne, Lily Ann Rose and Joan Arline also appear prominently, telling stories of life on the road, describing their highly defined personas, dishing on the advances of "backstage Johnnies" (including John F. Kennedy and Sammy Davis Jr., who surreptitiously paid the funeral bill for one of his favorites) and seriously slagging off some of the big names of burlesque, like Gypsy Rose Lee and Marilyn Monroe muse Lili St. Cyr.
Though initially, and somewhat speciously, painted as the cheerleaders of the dirty '30s -- bringing solace and bare buttocks to a tired and hungry nation -- the women need only touch on their personal histories for a more accurate picture to appear. Many of those stories are not that different from those associated with today's sex workers: gang rape, absent fathers, alcoholic mothers, teen pregnancy, and drug addiction are mentioned frankly but not dwelled upon. The comments of Alan Alda, who, as the son of a veteran actor and comic, spent his childhood backstage with half-naked women, sum up the contradiction Zemeckis faces in her examination of the time: "Early burlesque was a family entertainment!" he exclaims, though a few minutes later he qualifies that enthusiasm by casually but seriously referring to his upbringing as "a form of child abuse."
Behind the Burly Q seems unconcerned about glamorizing a tough line of work -- here's to a pasty in your eye! -- or at least suggesting that compared to our modern, pornified times, it all looks like good, clean fun. Maybe so, but the hints of a more complicated story -- the trembling voice of beautiful Sherry Britton describing her father's anguish; her similarly pained observation of what little choice she had -- give ballast to an otherwise good-natured, nostalgic look at an age destroyed by television and the rise of hardcore porn. As for the women -- in their 70s and 80s when the interviews were conducted in 2006; several have since died -- many simply moved on, to aerospace, carpentry, or a job at the morgue. True to their legacy as women with nerves of steel and bodies that just won't quit, they survived.