A succession of straight-talking elderly strippers relate the history of burlesque, while archival footage showcases the glorious ladies in their heyday, in “Behind the Burly Q,” Leslie Zemeckis’ paean to a vanished institution. The women’s outspoken commentaries prove consistently colorful and their long-ago stripteases — feathers flying, tassels spinning — still pack a sensual, sassy, what-the-hell punch. Too scattershot to present a truly coherent picture of the burlesque experience, docu nevertheless provides a privileged front-row seat to sample several of the form’s most memorable practitioners. “Q” may prove a hot ticket when it preems April 23 at Gotham’s Quad Cinema.
After a perfunctory overview of the form, which arose in the mid-1800s and flourished during the Depression, pic relies almost exclusively on the juicy anecdotes supplied by feisty ecdysiasts, whose stories run from raunchy to touching to funny to flat-out incredible — i.e. the spunky, seemingly over-the-hill woman who, at age 70, secured a part-time gig dressing up like Tinker Bell and cable-sliding high over Disneyland, suspended by her teeth.
Also chiming in are former burlesque funnymen and backup musicians, or their survivors (including a fulsome Alan Alda, whose dad, Robert, served as a straight man and “tit singer” before he starred in movies), with only occasional assists by biographers and femme scholars. All take pains to distinguish burlesque from current pole-dancing erotic spectacles. Burlesque is correctly understood as a direct extension of vaudeville, featuring headliners, comedy duos and splashy production numbers — “a big, gaudy theatrical show,” as Dixie Evans, the pic’s prime raconteur, puts it.
Flamboyant characters weave in and out of the exposition, in person, in recollection, in voiceover, or on celluloid. Kitty West, aka Evangelina the Oyster Girl, describes firsthand how she customarily came out of her shell, while the exhibitionist excesses of Rosie La Rose persist only in the memories of cohorts (and in some amazing black-and-white clips). Tempest Storm coyly remembers her affair with President Kennedy, while topliner Lili St. Cyr appears via a kinescoped interview with Mike Wallace.
Glimpses of the fabled fan artistry of the legendary Sally Rand abound. While Rand’s Lady Godiva-ish horseback ride evidently cinched the success of Chicago’s 1933 World’s Fair, Margie Hart’s refusal to clean up her act led to Mayor La Guardia’s shutdown of New York’s burlesque houses.
Zemeckis (wife of Robert, who exec produced) eschews visible structuring devices or obvious signs of directorial invention, arranging her material as a continuous linear narrative. Each interview snippet connects to the one before it, so that several voices complement the informational flow, with posters, newspaper pages and other artifacts adding sensationalistic touches. Momentarily cohering around particular subjects (poverty, travel, families, censorship, wardrobe, the Mafia, novelty acts), the pic encompasses many aspects of burlesque but fails to illuminate the whole.
Docu ends bizarrely with a risque tribute to the numerous strippers who died after pic wrapped.