While burlesque has made a bit of a comeback in recent years and is starting to get trendy again in certain circles (Don't believe me? Spend some time in NYC or Las Vegas), it's hardly a new thing. This wholly American mix of vaudevillian comedy and stripping rose to prominence in the thirties during the Great Depression but really hit its stride when the forties brought a lot of soldiers and sailors back to American shores.
Director Leslie Zemeckis' Behind The Burly-Q discusses the rise and fall of burlesque in America, from its early days in big cities like Chicago and New York to its spread to the west coast to cities like San Francisco through to expansion north into Toronto and various small towns throughout America. Most of this is done, and rightly so, through interviews with the people who were there and who made it happen. While most of the club owners and comedians who worked the circuit have passed on, many of the dancers themselves are still around, if no longer spring chickens, and evidently more than willing to talk about their experiences.
Interviews with such 'name' burlesque stars as Blaze Starr and Tempest Storm as well as lesser known but no less important twirly girls, with input from Alan Alda, whose father Robert Alda was a popular burlesque comedian, give a lot of personal insight into the pro's and con's of the industry and we learn firsthand what it was like. While burlesque seems like harmless, if slightly racy, entertainment these days there was a time when it was considered pretty immoral and a bit of a moral scourge. Cops would come in and look for trouble, the former mayor of New York City, Fiorello La Guardia would outlaw it in the city, and there'd even be the odd fight or two. Competition between dancers was sometimes not so friendly and often times no less than cutthroat, with women stealing clothing, prop and dance move ideas from one another rather maliciously. Not all of the ladies had these experiences, mind you, but enough did that we get some pretty catty storytelling here. Additionally, there's a wealth of excellent archival footage and pictures not just of the dancers but of the comedians, the club owners, family members, and even the burlesque theaters themselves (this last point might not sound like a big deal but when you consider how great the architecture was on a lot of these old buildings and how many of them have been torn down or turned into Rite-Aids, well, you start to appreciate this stuff).
Since the film is an 'in their own words' affair, it isn't always the most focused picture and it does tend to jump from interviewee to interviewee somewhat randomly, but that's cutting off your nose to spite your face. What we're basically left with here is a time capsule of sorts, an intimate and open look back at the early days of burlesque, before it was considered and appreciated as the art form it is today. The cinematography is nothing to write home about and the production values are nothing if not simple, but Zemckis does a great job of getting these old dames of the tawdry stage to open up about their lives and their experiences, to share those one of a kind memories with her camera, preserving them for posterity and for future generations to enjoy and to learn from. And if that don't sell ya? There's plenty of pictures of nekkid ladies to oogle. So step right in, it's air conditioned and it'll only cost you a dime...
The 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer on this DVD is a mixed bag. The newly shot interview footage runs the gamut from crisp and clear to fairly soft. The archival footage, all of which was probably shot fullframe, is cropped here to fill the 1.78.1 frame - they've done a reasonably good job of doing this to ensure that heads aren't cut off, but there are definitely spots where you'll notice picture information missing and the visuals probably would have been better off window-boxed. On top of that, there are some fairly noticeable interlacing issues present throughout the documentary. The transfer is certainly watchable enough, particularly when you take into account that this was made on a modest budget and shot on video and that the archival clips are only going to look so good, but there was some room left for improvement.
The English language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound track is fine. This isn't a fancy track and it's mostly just sound bites and talking head interview bits with some music behind it, but it works well enough. The levels are generally properly balanced and you won't have any trouble understanding the performers. Blaze Starr's interview bits were done over the phone and so they don't sound as clear as the interviews that were conducted in person, but such is life. This is a front heavy mix that really sounds like a stereo track save for some occasional bits where the rear channels are used to spread out the music a bit. Optional subtitles are supplied in English.
As far as the extras go, this disc contains three featurettes, the first of which is The Reunion which is seven minutes of footage shot at a 'class reunion' of sorts held in Las Vegas where a group of retired and former burlesque performers got together to stroll down memory lane. Memorabilia And Costumes is more interesting, as it's a five minute look at exactly what you'd expect - vintage costumes, many of which are incredibly ornate, and other ephemera. Behind The Scenes is a seven minute bit in which Leslie Zemeckis discusses the origins of the picture and putting it together. There are also some Bonus Interviews here, roughly twenty-two minutes worth, which are rather interesting and include more input from many of the ladies interviewed in the feature. Rounding out the extras are a Burlesque Timeline, a Photo Gallery and a trailer for the feature. Menus and chapter stops are also included.
Behind The Burly-Q is a bit scattered in its approach but overall it does a pretty good job of exploring what made burlesque interesting during its heyday while exploring the lives of some of those who helped it rise to prominence. First Look's DVD release looks and sounds about as good as the material will allow for and it contains a reasonable amount of pertinent extra features as well. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.