‘Getting Naked: A Burlesque Story’: Film Review | Venice 2017

Artists including Gal Friday and Hazel Honeysuckle star in James Lester’s debut feature-length documentary ‘Getting Naked: A Burlesque Story,’ premiering in the Venice Days section of the Italian festival.

The gaudily disreputable subculture of nearly-nude dancing gets a bouncy salute in James Lester’s Getting Naked: A Burlesque Story. Concentrating on specifically Manhattanite manifestations of what has steadily become a global nightlife phenomenon in in the past 20 years, it’s a somewhat square celebration of a supposedly transgressive art form. Nonfiction festivals and tube channels are the likeliest home for this slickly assembled, breezy peek into the lives of some engaging exhibitionists.

Director Lester switches between a small handful of female, NYC-based burlesquers, none of whose real names are given. Saucy, punning monikers like Hazel Honeysuckle and Gal Friday are all of a piece with elaborate makeup jobs and spectacular, sometimes quasi-fantastical costuming — designed with rapid disrobing in mind. Burlesque is summed up early on as “a short dance, that either begins or ends naked, to music,” although those expecting to see ladies in the full frontal buff will be frustrated by the presence of nipple-concealing “pasties” and figleaf sized coverings for pubic hair.

The Bottom Line

Musical-striptease celebration wears only a sunny smile.

After rapidly sketching in the early history of burlesque, Lester traces its post-1996 revival. He includes a tantalizing glimpse of the eponymous, widely panned 2010 musical starring Cher and Christina Aguilera, but omits mention of Matthieu Amalric’s raunchier, Cannes-prized On Tour from the same year. Lester then alternates between talking-head interviews and footage of various acts as they eke out a living at various rungs of the show business ladder, punctuated with standard issue shots of nocturnal Manhattan.

He productively juxtaposes the scarily talented Honeysuckle’s lucrative stint at a fancy, soulless-looking New Jersey hotel with scenes of the Schlep Sisters — who truly incarnate the show-must-go-on spirit — coping with a dank, basement dressing room in a grungy Newark dive. The acts and interviewees are seen in isolation, meaning that there’s very little sense either of camaraderie or rivalry among the circuit’s indefatigable denizens. 

Lester is a self-effacing interviewer, downplaying his presence in what’s now become a very over-familiar style of documentary cinema. And with no external voices or expert/objective analysis (was John Waters washing his hair?), Getting Naked is content to skim along the sequinned surfaces of burlesque’s ebullient world.

Long having shed any of its former links to experimental theater, the often comedy-oriented “Neo-Burlesque” in New York now seems relatively hipsterized, commercialized, even sanitized; a mirror in one venue may be emblazoned with the word “Debauchery” but there’s little sense of genuine envelope pushing on display; scenes at NYC’s Burlesque Festival and the Burlesque Hall of Fame in Las Vegas play out like straight faced outtakes from a Christopher Guest spoof. And, while Gal Friday, Hazel Honeysuckle and the Schlep Sisters are unfailingly lively, articulate and sympathetic company, proceedings take on a repetitive, even monotonous air after a while.

Male burlesque performers are largely conspicuous by their absence — the annual Vegas contest we see is actually won by a brace of dudes — and Getting Naked leaves the many connections between burlesque and the LGBT community unexplored. Also perplexing is Lester’s editorial decision to blur out many of the faces in the audience at the shows — presumably motivated by (over-cautious) legal concerns. It’s a minor detail, but one that epitomizes the debutant director’s excessively vanilla approach to a spicy subject. 

Production company: James Lester Films
Director / Screenwriter: James Lester
Producers: James Lester, Frank Hall Green, Chandra C. Silver, Susan Wrubel
Cinematographers: James Lester, JWJ Ferguson, Mitch Blummer, Rudy Valdez, Jae Song
Editors: James Lester, Emmanuel Nomikos, Meg Reticker
Composers: Jay Lifton, Scott RayowGiancarlo Vulcano
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Venice Days [Special Events])
Sales: James Lester Films, New York (jameslesterfilms@gmail.com)
In English
No Rating, 85 minutes