There’s little kick or pizzazz in “Showgirls: Glitz & Angst,” a documentary on the creation of a topless revue at Las Vegas’ Rio hotel-casino. It’s pretty short on the glitz and angst as well. Far too many personalities develop too slowly to build any sort of empathy and, because of its chronological storytelling, the dramas that do arise play like speedbumps rather than roadblocks. It may be the first time HBO falls on its face when using sex appeal to attract an audience.
After assembling a chorus line for “Showgirls,” which seems more in line with early ’90s shows like “Splash” than the current ultra-sexy “X,” “Skintight” and “Zumanity,” four dancers are selected for the spotlight in this doc. Their stories don’t penetrate on any level; their issues are no different from those of the average audience member. The one emotional payoff in the doc comes from the two people who put this together — the show’s producer, Greg Thompson, and the show’s choreographer, Mistinguett. They were longtime lovers, and while they maintain their professional relationship, she is clearly pained by the presence of his young starlet wife, Sunny. More than any topless shots, her facial expressions are what get the blood boiling.
Otherwise it’s tryouts and rehearsals and weigh-ins for the four featured dancers, who also are given cameras to capture their offstage lives. Real as their situations may be, it feels like a casting call was made. One’s a single mother with injuries to her legs and feet, so she’s at a career crossroads. One has the on-again off-again boyfriend. One’s father is in jail. And the other one’s mother has been diagnosed with cancer.
By keeping the show running strictly according to the calendar, director Kirby Dick handcuffs the story to a timeline that reduces any palpable drama.
“Showgirls” exposes a hard reality: The performers are abused until they do the routines (which could change at any second) properly, and once the curtain goes up on opening night, they’re merely a collection of exposed body parts in an elaborate headdress. The real struggle, one would think, is the anonymity inherent in a revue like “Showgirls.” The great unasked question is: How do these women struggle with the fact that they won’t be discovered on that stage, no matter how good they are, and when do they come to that realization?