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Monday, November 22, 2010

Burlesque movie review: Burly-Q goes Hollywood with Cher and Christina Aguilera


Starring: Christina Aguilera, Cher, Cam Gigandet, Stanley Tucci, Kristen Bell, Eric Dane, Peter Gallagher, Alan Cumming, Julianne Hough, Dianna Agron

Written and directed by: Steven Antin

Studio: Screen Gems

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 100 Minutes

Official Website:

Opens November 24, 2010

I felt an obligation to see an advance screening of the new Christina Aguilera and Cher movie Burlesque to see what it's all about. I shall write this review of the film keeping in mind that there will be people from the general movie-going public as well as the burlesque community reading this piece.

For more than a decade, a burlesque revival has been underway. In various clubs, bars, and theaters, burlesque performances have spread out from places like New York City, Chicago, Denver, and San Francisco to the heartland and across borders to other countries. Artists as Rihanna and Lady Gaga (a former burlesque and go-go dancer) have incorporated burlesque into their songs and performances. Burlesque has also inspired fashion designers such as Yves Saint Laurent among many others. So it's not surprising that Hollywood decided to make a film about this underground phenomenon. Indeed, it's been said to have been in the works since the late 1990s when the revival was picking up steam.

Burlesque—which is the motion picture debut for pop music superstar Christina Aguilera and the first major motion picture that Cher has made in 10 years—is positioned to take advantage of burlesque's burgeoning popularity.

If you're looking for an accurate cinematic portrayal of this revival, however, Burlesque is not it.

If you're looking for a well-written, complex, yet nuanced musical drama filled with engaging characters, this is not it either.

But if you're looking for a glitzy, upbeat, splashy film featuring music video-like performances by Christina Aguilera and Cher, you may just enjoy this movie.

Small-town girl Ali (Christina Aguilera) leaves Iowa to seek stardom singing and dancing in Hollywood and finds it. Along the way, she helps to save a burlesque club owned by Tess (Cher) and makes (almost) everyone happy. A unique story this is not.

The film's strengths and weaknesses are evident within the opening scenes. The movie starts out in an Iowa roadhouse, where Ali decides to quit her dead-end job. Almost immediately, she jumps on the small stage and starts singing and dancing. If we didn't know it before, we know now that this will be a musical. And Christina Aguilera sounds and looks good as long as she's singing and dancing.

Another of the problems that becomes immediately apparent is that scene transitions in this movie are poorly constructed. When we next see Ali, she's in Los Angeles already. There's no sense of time having passed. It's like being in a casino's showroom, which incidentally is an apt description of Burlesque.

Seemingly on the fist night she's in town, she wanders into the Burlesque Lounge ("We may not have windows, but we do have the best view on the Sunset Strip!") after seeing a dancer taking a break on the stairs outside. I suppose "Burlesque Club" sounded too generic to the creators of this movie.

Writer and director Steven Antin has said in interviews that he wanted to keep things light and avoid the dark melodrama that has been common in burlesque and cabaret movies in the past. He's succeeded unequivocally. There's no toil for our heroine! Things happen in rapid-fire fashion for Ali, all seemingly to get her to the next musical sequence.

Though the script was written by Antin, it also passed through John Patrick Shanley (Moonstruck, Doubt) and Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich) for some uncredited rewrites. Some of the dialog is corny, yet not memorable enough to for people to repeat ad infinitum in true cult movie fashion. This movie is not campy enough to be likened to Showgirls. Also, the actors' input was taken into consideration during rewrites, and the ending was reshot after the original Pretty Woman homage was not well-received by test audiences. The story thus winds up being choppy and seeming more like a storyboard than a finished and polished script. It also ends in an unbelievably happy fashion, where Ali is a star, Tess keeps the Burlesque Lounge, and everybody else gets something. Musicals tend to end happily, but this ending is beyond the pale.

Probably the core of many a musical is a romance. What about the romantic aspects of Burlesque? Aguilera's Tess and Cam Gigandet's Jack generate some sparks, but nothing resembling a roaring fire. They're cute together, but nothing special.

The characters who generate the most chemistry together are Cher's Tess and Stanley Tucci's Sean, who plays her gay best friend and stage manager. They have an easy kind of relationship, while still they still poke and prod each other's buttons to keep themselves moving forward. It's apparent that they're the most accomplished actors of the lot. Tucci's performance is one of the best things about Burlesque. The scene in which Tess asks Sean to tell her a new lie is priceless.

One thing that is unfortunate is that after many surgical procedures to keep her youthful appearance, Cher's face doesn't seem capable of registering subtle emotions any longer. She has one of those "frozen" faces.

Another problem is that the characters are shallow, mere cardboard cutouts of real people. They lack real substance and depth, something which might make us care about them. Most of the characters, with the exception of Tess and Sean for the most part, are little more than walking and talking stereotypes who aren't very interesting. There's the sleazy wealthy guy Marcus (Eric Dane), Tess's even sleazier ex-husband and business partner Vince (Peter Gallagher), the girl who gets pregnant Georgia (Julianne Hough), the rival performer with issues Nikki (Kristen Bell), and even Ali herself, who is the quintessential good girl with a dream.

In most good movies, the main character transforms or grows in some way over the course of the story arc. Ali pretty much stays the same throughout this film, however, which is fortunate for Christina Aguilera, as she shows a distinct lack of acting chops. Ali is written as being pretty one-dimensional—spunky and determined—so Aguilera's not being able to act becomes less distracting after a while.

What she can do well, however, is sing and dance. It's hard to imagine how such a big voice can fit in such a petite body. The dance routines are worthy of a Las Vegas showroom, and the scenes are shot well. The dancing is pleasing to the eye, and the songs are pleasing to the ear.

Which brings us to the songs. While they sound good enough, I had enough trouble remembering the new tunes as I was leaving the theater, much less the lyrics. Included are covers by Aguilera of Etta James' “Something's Got A Hold On Me” and “Tough Lover,” as well as a cover of Mae West's “Guy What Takes His Time.” The only new song that stuck with me even after repeat YouTube viewings was Cher's performance of "Welcome to Burlesque."

The choreography by Joey Pizzi (It's Complicated) and Denise Faye looks good in that Las Vegas showroom kind of way. They both were associate choreographers on last year's Nine, along with Tara Nicole Hughes who is an associate choreographer on this film as well. Michael Kaplan (Blade Runner, Fight Club) did the costume design, which went along well with the choreography and overall look and feel of the film.

Although the film is called Burlesque, there are almost no striptease routines in this film. Probably the best striptease is performed by Jack (Cam Gigandet) with pajamas and a box of Famous Amos cookies as he's humorously getting ready to start his PG-13 romance with Tess. Once again Antin has said that he wanted to de-emphasize the bump and grind of burlesque, which explains the lack of striptease. I suppose he wanted to maintain the MPAA rating that would allow all of the target audience to see the film, which has been speculated to be women ages 13 to 30 based on a Burlesque-MTV nationwide dance contest staged recently.

Oddly enough, there are some details that give a nod to burlesque's past glory days. When preparing to dance at the club, Tess does her homework by reading some books, including Ann Corio's This Was Burlesque. And I may be mistaken, but there appears to be a photo of burlesque legend Lili St. Cyr that Tess has placed on her dressing room mirror. These details are nice, but one wonders if they would have approved of their association with this motion picture.

Ultimately, Burlesque is a glitzy and glamorous Hollywood version of a Las Vegas version of burlesque. If that sounds like watered-down burlesque, that's what it looks and feels like. A more appropriate title for the film would be Cabaret, but I suppose that one was already taken.

What's missing is what has made burlesque's revival so widespread and popular at a grassroots level. The self-expression of the performers who create their own wardrobe and choreography. The acceptance of different body types as being sexy and beautiful. The examination and parody of society's norms and mores. The variety of acts in a burlesque show, including comedians, magicians, aerialist, circus sideshows, musicians, clowns, and almost anything else you can think of. But that's what happens when you have a big budget Hollywood film. Everything that makes something like burlesque popular in the first place gets stripped out (no pun intended) and replaced by glitz without much substance.

Burlesque is entertaining if you can look past its numerous flaws. It's light, glitzy, and upbeat with lots of fun dance sequences and amazing vocal performances by Christina Aguilera. If you haven't seen many musicals before, you'll probably enjoy the film. Though you can probably just watch the official YouTube Burlesque videos for the some of the highlights of the movie and save the $10 or more for the ticket.

If you're looking to see what burlesque is really about, though, you'd probably be best off watching a documentary such as Deidre Timmons' A Wink and a Smile (now available on Netflix), or Leslie Zemeckis' Behind the Burly-Q, which features interviews with many of the legends of burlesque. You can also read about the new burlesque in Michelle Baldwin's Burlesque and the New Bump-N-Grind or in Jo Weldon's The Burlesque Handbook.

Or, better yet, Google 'burlesque” and find a show in or near your town. After all, burlesque is best experienced live.

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Michelle Baldwin said...

Thanks for the plug! Great review!

Maxwell Wood said...

You're welcome,Michelle. And thanks! I probably learned the most about the neo-burlesque revival from your book. I highly recommend it!