WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
To derive any kind of enjoyment (beyond the physical) from Michael Radford's Dancing at the Blue Iguana, you need to understand its interesting underbelly. On the surface, the film is a rambling affair, populated with frequently naked women bumping and grinding on a dank stage and struggling earnestly with their private lives. The frequently handheld camera follows the rather dismal lives of five strippers who work at a Los Angeles strip joint called the Blue Iguana. Angel (Daryl Hannah) is the fading star of the club, a dunderheaded blonde with a hopeless desire to care for a foster child. Jasmine (Sandra Oh) is a talented but creatively closeted poet lured by life and love outside the Blue Iguana. Stormy (Sheila Kelley) is the quiet, brooding one with the awful secret in her past. Jo (Jennifer Tilly) is the fiery-tempered bondage queen (a variation of her Bound character). And Jessie (Charlotte Ayanna) rounds out this kinkily motley crew as the new dancer who just can't catch a break. Radford dips his camera into each stripper's life, offering us glimpses of the human beings beneath the objectified stage-bound personae. Watching the movie without any knowledge of how it came to be, I found myself mildly entertained by the frequent displays of nubile flesh but mostly frustrated by the stripper's stories, which seemed disjointed, incomplete, and—at times—predictable and melodramatic.
But here's where the DVD format truly shines. A tour through the special features leads you to the understanding that Dancing at the Blue Iguana is the result of a months-long improvisational workshop, in which each actress privately evolved her character by interacting endlessly with the other actresses and hanging out nightly with real dancers at local strip clubs. You can see how the actresses inhabited their roles and became those characters.
So it's interesting to ponder why the whole enterprise is ultimately a failure. The acting is top-notch. The dialog feels accurate. The look of the club leads you to believe that the set designers also hung out in actual dingy joints. And yet the plot—despite the honorable efforts of the hard-working cast to create gritty stories for the characters—is desperately shallow. In the end, it all comes across as pretending. The workshopping feels like workshopping. You can almost hear Radford in the background whispering suggestions to the actors. Props seem overly contrived, too much of a focal point. And the original script seems so diluted that a would-be crime story that wants to hold all these disparate elements together comes across as head-scratchingly ridiculous. And the individual stories, with some exceptions, are the banal stuff of caricatures.
Still, it's hard to totally pan a film that has such lofty intentions. I admire the efforts of all involved, and I especially admire an actress who is willing to bare all, both physically and emotionally. My lasting impression of this movie will be of the strong acting from everyone involved. Sheila Kelley was particularly interesting as the deeply troubled Stormy (even though that absurdly symbolic name almost completely undermines her efforts).
HOW'S IT LOOK?
I was disappointed to find that Trimark has produced a letterboxed, non-anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer of Dancing at the Blue Iguana. And although I still frown on any DVD release that's not enhanced for widescreen TVs, I must say that this image is the best-looking non-anamorphic image that I've seen. On my widescreen set, I stretched the image to fill the screen and noticed surprisingly little loss of sharpness and background detail. I have seen many anamorphic transfers that don't approach the picture quality of this disc. I noticed some dirt on the print, especially toward the beginning, but nothing terribly distracting. Colors are accurate and rich, and black levels are nicely deep.
I can only imagine how much more striking this image might have been had it been presented anamorphically.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix didn't do much for me. Although I noticed some envelopmental use of music and club dialog and rustling, I could have used more. In general, the sound is at the front of the room, with fairly nice stereo separation. Dialog was coherent, with no instances of tinniness, but music fared best overall, with nice use of the lower range.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
The disc's special features are impressive. First up is a commentary from director Michael Radford. He talks mostly about the technical aspects of the production, as well as the intricacies of the workshopping. Despite his rather dry delivery, he is obviously enthusiastic and proud of his film and its origins and performances.
The DVD offers a second commentary, from actors Sheila Kelley, Sandra Oh, and Robert Wisdom (who plays the club owner). This track has more spontaneous, anecdotal energy than Radford's track. The actors focus on the everyday experience of making the film, relating fond memories of the workshopping that led up to it. I recommend giving each of these commentaries a listen, because they're good examples of two very different types of commentary.
The most interesting extra on this disc is an hour-long documentary directed by Daryl Hannah called Strip Notes. The documentary intercuts fly-on-the-wall footage of real strippers joking and bickering backstage with footage of the actors workshopping. The lion's share of the running time is taken up by stripper footage—which I'd never complain about, but I also would like to have seen more workshopping. Nevertheless, this is a fascinating documentary that truly takes you into the lives of these somewhat tragic figures. In a way, it's more powerful than the feature. Kudos to Daryl Hannah.
The disc contains a selection of alternate takes and deleted scenes, and sadly there's not much of interest here. Finally, you get the theatrical trailer.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
Dancing at the Blue Iguana is a noble failure. Although the movie ultimately disappoints, it's worth at least a rental so that you can appreciate the undertaking behind it.