Although now swathed in nostalgic longing/hipster appropriation, the art of burlesque was once a vibrant, multitiered cultural enterprise—escapist family entertainment for the working class, an erotic getaway for men of all classes, and a carefully constructed art form. Leslie Zemeckis' slightly ramshackle but utterly entertaining doc is a painstakingly researched love letter to the women and men who once made up the community of burlesque performers. If the documentary could be a little more tightly edited, its treasure trove of vintage photographs and performance footage is enough to make historians and fans of classic erotica swoon. The film's visual component is complemented by insightful talking heads (retired performers as well as feminist scholars) who map a fascinating evolution of the form while filling in the performers' backstories. It's the latter—from horrifying stories of poverty, violence, and abuse to professional and artistic triumphs—that really pull the viewer in. While icons such as Blaze Starr, Tempest Storm, and Dixie Evans (the Marilyn Monroe of burlesque) are given ample screen time, Gypsy Rose Lee, the biggest crossover success, is not only given a relatively brief mention but is also bitchily (and very entertainingly) ripped to shreds by folks who knew her.
Evans was called the Marilyn Monroe of burlesque.
Runs at Grand Illusion, Fri., Aug. 6–Thurs., Aug. 12. Not rated. 98 minutes.