League of Exotique Dancers
Written and Directed by Rama Rau
Produced by Ed Barreveld, Storyline Entertainment
August 11th, 2015
It seemed as though the day might never come, but here it is: someone finally made a burlesque documentary worth a damn. Not some milquetoast Ken Burns-alike, not a facile “empowerment” manifesto, not a splattery punk video collage, but a GOOD DOCUMENTARY ABOUT BURLESQUE. Packed with moving insight and bawdy good humor, director Rama Rau’s League of Exotique Dancers is a great living document of a great living art form.
League was screened at this year’s Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend with a few caveats: work in progress, color correction, sound mixing, clip clearance, etc. But even lacking a final coat of paint and screened with an odd little aspect ratio error that stretched the image sideways, its quality was undeniable. This is a must for anyone who cares about the art of burlesque and about the women who created and sustained it.
The difference between LED and the glut of other documentaries about burlesque is that Rau never approaches it as an academic exercise. It feels, blessedly, like a MOVIE and not like a thesis statement or an iMovie patch job. There’s a sense of pace and curiosity at work here, supported by well-chosen archival footage and generous, artfully captured new interviews with Camille 2000, Gina Bon Bon, Marinka, Delilah, Lovey Goldmine, Kitten Natividad, Holiday O’Hara, Judith Stein, and Toni Elling.
Rau pieces together a coherent cultural narrative about burlesque, tracing it from its prominence in the 1950s and ’60s through its decline in the 1970s and ’80s with the advent of the strip club. But she understands something important: the key to burlesque is not structural or technical, it’s about the personalities. “If you really give them You,” Natividad says, “they won’t forget You.” Rau proves her right by just letting them talk, and the result is a piñata bursting with juicy anecdotes and bon mots.
From Camille rat-poisoning unfaithful lovers (“they were back the next day for more,” she smirks) to Marinka being hilariously indiscreet about which actors and directors she slept with in the 1970s, your jaw is likely to be on the floor for a lot of it. Lovey Goldmine, beaming and bubbly, tells tales of her days in the Crazy Horse. Delilah fires off some magnificently dry one-liners. Holiday O’Hara proves a wonderful raconteur, advocating LSD as a tool for self-actualization and welcoming the camera into her dungeon for a candid discussion of BDSM in all its depths and pleasures. Natividad talks touchingly about her time with Russ Meyer and invites us to watch her take a phone sex client, a sequence that provides the film with its most memorably filthy quote.
The stories are not always so amusing. Elling, the stateliest of the bunch, speaks of her impoverished upbringing in Detroit and the racism of casting practices in old burlesque (regrettably little has changed there). Stein tells of an attempted sexual assault at the hands of a group of frat boys and the subsequent court case. Asked by the judge what an appropriate sentence would be, Stein rejected any monetary compensation but demanded that the culprits’ names be published and that they be required by the court to take Women’s Studies.
Elling and Stein both voice a survivor’s pragmatism that suffuses LED. Camille, seen driving a hearse, remarks, “I’ll never ride this motherfucker dead.” That no-bullshit spirit extends to a refreshingly blasé, nonjudgmental attitude towards sex work (Stein traces its noble heritage back through the ages) and drug use. These stories aren’t milked for drama or undue sensationalism. They just are. “Am I proud of what I did?” asks O’Hara of one particularly intense episode. “No. Am I ashamed of what I did? No. It’s just survival.” Bodies belong to those who wield them, and Rau resists the urge to moralize or place such sentiments in the context of an argument. The points are sharply and unsentimentally made and the film is all the better for it.
The prevailing feeling is one of celebration, culminating in triumphant performances at the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend. There’s a defiant sensuality in these clips, a reminder that what constitutes a performer’s “prime” is very much up for debate. These women, some of whom haven’t performed in decades, tear up the stage with a vengeance. The audience is clearly both overjoyed and utterly overwhelmed. The audience for the screening looked exactly the same way.
We call these performers “legends” because they got there first and paved the way for a still-thriving scene. But a legend is also a story, and League of Exotique Dancers shows us women who have written their own since the beginning. Some of those stories are a riot, some of them are heartbreaking, all of them are necessary to gain an understanding of how we got here and why it’s important. Toni Elling, reflecting on her legacy, says, “If I inspire people, then I’m happy about that.” Elling has nothing to worry about on that front. Nor do any of the other astonishing women in this excellent, necessary film.
[Note: The sneak preview of League of Exotique Dancers screened at the 2015 Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekend was in an in-progress print that lacked color correction, final sound mix, high-quality archival photos, and final music—none of which impeded Mr. Keith’s enjoyment. —Ed.]
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Photos courtesy of Storyline Entertainment and used here with explicit permission for Burlesque Beat. Please don’t steal them. But do sign up for our mailing list.