[New York City Independent Film Festival] Documentaries: Getting Naked: A Burlesque Story (2018) - Reviewed

Ladies performing in varying stages of undress for the excitement of the public has been a staple of the entertainment industry for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. While societal ideals of beauty and attraction have dominated more mainstream performers and performance spaces like Las Vegas’ Showgirls, or even the dancers featured at your local area strip club, scantily clad performers with alternate body types and ideas have always found a home in the world of burlesque. James Lester’s 2017 documentary, Getting Naked: A Burlesque Story, tells the story of the modern-day Burlesque performer. Some of the featured ladies are traditionally beautiful, some are not, but all are given equal respect and camera time in this story about the struggle of shaking what your momma gave you for a living, and sometimes doing it with a laugh.

Featuring several drastically different performers based in New York City, the film and its subjects pull no punches when detailing the struggles and triumphs of those who choose this counter-culture focused career. Intimate interviews, interlaced with clips from the interviewee’s performances, give insight into not only the sometimes grueling physicality of the performances, but also to the mental aspect. Women discuss what led them to bear it all, how they feel while they’re performing, and how they’re living their lives off stage. One performer discusses the ups and downs of the business, money-wise; some months she’s Daddy Warbucks, others, she’s ready to rattle a cup on corners for change to make her rent. The glitz and glamour are present, but so is real life.

While there are male performers, a few even briefly featured by Lester in this film, burlesque is primarily a woman’s game. Lester’s greatest achievement in this film was in casting his subjects. Each woman is extremely different in not only looks and body type, but also in their personal struggles, and each showcases a unique gimmick. Some, including the only plus-size woman featured, play their strip teases straight and sultry, without irony, while others make their acts comedy routines and bring audiences to their knees with sexy laughs. The most heavily featured performer, Hazel Honeysuckle, is also the most traditionally beautiful, and, oddly enough, the one who seems to feel she has the most to prove, skill-wise, because of her good looks and aesthetically appealing body. Seeing the work that goes into these ladies’ performances, the amount of time and effort necessary to elevate themselves and their art, gives the audience a whole new idea about the women who work in burlesque.

Getting Naked: A Burlesque Story is an interesting, well shot and constructed story about women who choose to do what they want in the face of a judgmental society. One can only imagine that Lester’s decision to shine a light on a side of society defined by its dark, smoky clubs was intended to humanize the performers and give parts of society that may have shunned them a chance to see them for the people they are, and in this vein, he succeeded, producing an enjoyable, fun film that does just that. 

Getting Naked: A Burlesque Story will screen at the NYCIFF on May 11th.

-Josie Stec