The 2018 Lower East Side Film Festival is announcing its opening night film, Getting Naked: A Burlesque Story, with this exclusive from Bedford + Bowery. The documentary is about the wild and ever-changing burlesque revival in New York. It premiered at the 74th Venice International Film Festival and played at DOC NYC 2017 prior to its scheduled showing at the LES Film Festival on June 7.
We chatted with the film’s director, James Lester, about burlesque in New York and the inspiration behind his feature documentary.
Yeah, I’m born and raised in New York. I grew up as a kid in the Bronx until I was about nine. And then my family moved literally a couple of blocks north into Yonkers. But I went to high school in New York—never really left New York. And now I live in Brooklyn.
I think it was in my blood. My father is a jazz pianist and my mother is a painter. My father—I found out recently one of his very first gigs in the ‘60s was playing behind a burlesque stripper. Flash forward to around 2009 or so: I was making some short films, where we were doing this jazzy, almost Boardwalk Empire type thing. And each episode had a burlesque performer. When that series died—we ran out of funding—I was like, Hey, I’m really antsy, I want to keep making films. I know this burlesque world a little bit. So I grabbed a camera and started to go to shows and really fell in love with it in a different way.
There’s essentially three main characters. One of the “main” characters is actually two characters. They’re called The Schlep Sisters—a comedic Jewish burlesque duo. And they are very much linked to the old-school, gritty New York burlesque. They’ve been around the longest, and they are now in this world of oversaturated, commodified burlesque that is sort of overrun, if you will, by skinny girls. So they’re struggling to stay relevant while they are getting older and working in a very physical medium.
Our second one is a performer named Gal Friday, and she is basically is what they call a “classic” performer. She performs the way you might think about burlesque from the old days. Bumps and grinds and that jazzy era body-ness.
And our third main character is a girl named Hazel Honeysuckle, who was new to burlesque. We follow her—she quits her day job and becomes a full-time performer. She’s married, so her husband has to figure out how to support her, while he’s still a little bit nervous. And we watch her rise. She becomes very, very popular in a very short amount of time.
Then we have a couple of other performers who are part of this Greek chorus. One woman named Jezebel Express is a plus-size performer. In the film, she says, ” I don’t go out to be political, but when people see me get on stage, it’s inherently political. It’s easier for people if fat ladies are funny. You know, it’s easier for people if you do your thing and it’s cute and it’s sanitized and it’s not meant to be sexy, and it’s not supposed to be dirty, and it’s not supposed to be erotic.”
Our film does not really go into that history in detail. What it does go into is when burlesque came back to New York as a modern movement. And that was called [the] Neo-Burlesque movement in the mid-90s. That started as this mish-mash of performance art, drag and cabaret and this strip-tease element. But it was very inclusive. All body types—gay, straight, men, women. More recently, things like Boardwalk Empire made [burlesque] popular again. And what happened once it got popular again—it attracted a lot of people. Specifically, a lot of people who wanted to see women who were more “traditionally” shaped. So, women that you would maybe see on the covers of magazines as opposed to what the Neo-Burlesque movement had started earlier, which was just, anyone can do this. I think burlesque has still retained that all-inclusiveness, but it’s now battling this mainstream aspect.
The concept of making a living is a central theme in the film. To the point where one character has to grapple with should she quit burlesque or not? For her, it’s not move out of New York. It’s: Do I quit the life of burlesque so I can keep paying my rent? Another performer talks about what it is to grind out a living as a burlesque performer, because they do not make much money. It is a struggle. Some have extra income doing a day job. But our performers are full-time. They don’t have day jobs. They just do this.
Correction: After publication, James Lester revised his quote about Jezebel Express because he had been imprecise about her weight. For further accuracy, his paraphrasing of her film dialogue was substituted with an exact quote.