Behind the Burly Q
Directed by Leslie Zemeckis
An oral history of that once great American pastime, burlesque, Behind the Burly Q draws on the testimony of a handful of ex-performers—as well as the relatives of those who've passed on—as they recount their experiences during the art form's 1930s heyday. As we learn early on in Leslie (wife of Robert) Zemeckis' fond memory piece, burlesque was about more than the women. Hitting its popular and artistic stride during the lean years of the depression, the form offered a cheap down-market variety show for working-class patrons, consisting of comic sketches ("the main thing in the burlesque," says one subject), singing, dancing and novelty acts in addition to striptease.
But it's this last mode of performance that stands out in the public imagination and, despite some side trips into other aspects of the burlesque (touching not only on the comic acts, but such bits of business as the running of the concessions and the merits of the various theaters), it's to the women that Zemeckis always returns. Supplemented by archival photos and video, the aging beauties talk about their hard-luck backgrounds (a number came from broken homes) and the pleasures and difficulties of the circuit, while the relatives of deceased performers fill us in on the often tragic ends that the strippers met and enthusiasts discuss the on-stages personas and signature acts of the various women.
By conceiving her film as a collection of reminiscences, Zemeckis offers a loose enough structure to allow a number of fascinating anecdotes, both amusing (the son of a Dallas burlesque owner recalls how Jack Ruby threatened his father for not closing his theater on the day of Kennedy's assassination) and horrific (one stripper was beaten up 19 times by fellow-performers and ended up in a psychiatric hospital) to emerge. But the flipside to this approach is that it lends to the project a distracting scattershot quality in which we're confronted with whole reams of decontextualized information.
Near the film's conclusion, for example, we're suddenly informed that the mafia controlled many of the theaters and kept the women in line by not letting them go out with customers. But since we've already been told that the performers sometimes did date customers, this new revelation leaves us thirsting for more information. Did the mob control all the theaters or just certain types of establishments? Was their influence limited to a certain time period or did they reign throughout the entirety of burlesque's heyday? But no sooner has this question of mafia influence been teasingly raised than it's summarily dropped. And despite a few bits of contextualizing background provided by a handful of scholars—mostly at film's beginning—that's pretty much the strategy for the entirety of the work.�‚
Still, Zemeckis' film does serve as a valuable first step toward reclaiming a lost moment of Americana (even if, as she fails to acknowledge, burlesque—or is it "burlesque"? —has recently made something of a comeback). It just requires that the viewer follow up with his own research in order to account for the movie's gaping ellipses.
Opens April 23