Burlesque - Another go at the no-clothes show

Can two new movies about burlesque strip away the tacky legacy left by the excruciating 'Showgirls'? Kaleem Aftab finds out

Dancing girls have long enjoyed a special, if not always critically lauded, place in Hollywood. Now, after years of being critical poison, two new films – Mathieu Amalric's On Tour and Steve Antin's Burlesque – are putting hoofers back in the limelight.

The two films take rather contrasting approaches. The French actor and Bond villain-turned-director Amalric has concentrated on the scene's gritty underbelly, using real burlesque girls as his cast members in On Tour. Antin, on the other hand, takes a more traditional Hollywood approach in which the glamour of dancing is given as much prominence as any backstage shenanigans.

Burlesque is also remarkable for bringing Cher back to the screen after a seven-year hiatus. And the singer and Moonstruck star certainly makes the most of her re-entrance, popping up from behind a gaggle of dancers in the glitzy opening number. The film also sees the film debut of Christina Aguilera, who in addition to starring as Ali, a small-town girl who comes to Los Angeles to make it big, wrote three new songs for the film.

The movie is a by-numbers rendition of the archetypal poor-girl-makes-it-big-on-stage movie that became a staple of Hollywood as soon as talkies took over at the cinema. Think Liza Minnelli in Cabaret or Marilyn Monroe singing "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Part of the popularity of the genre was down to it allowing women to be risqué within the boundaries of family entertainment. George Bernard Shaw called dancing "the vertical expression of a horizontal desire legalised by music", and film-makers exploited its safely raunchy potential as a way of getting around the Hays Code in the 1930s. Bollywood still does it to this day.

In the 1930s Ginger Rogers was the queen of the dancefloor. This was dance made squeaky clean, as Rogers formed an extraordinary partnership with Fred Astaire. Rogers was a dancing girl who epitomised the glamour of motion pictures in glorious Technicolor. At that time while dramas remained in black and white, musicals were beginning to be made in colour.

The 50s saw the rise of Monroe, who would have been the star of any burlesque cabaret show, oozing sex appeal with her voluptuous figure and heavy eyelids. The blonde bombshell brought all the risqué and sensual aspects that made burlesque so fashionable on stage, to the screen. But Monroe let the cat out of the bag when she took acting classes and made known her desire to take more dramatic roles in films. According to her, girls dancing on screen were never taken too seriously.

Monroe's stardom coincided with a time when the role of women on screen was changing. While burlesque was all about subtle suggestion, directors and the public were getting used to seeing more and more nudity on screen and more graphic sex scenes.

In the 1960s and 70s dancing girls became associated with kitsch, rare exceptions being films adapted from successful plays, such as Cabaret. Despite musicals losing popularity, dance continued to create some of the cinema's most memorable moments. Who could forget Anna Karina dancing with Claude Brasseur and Daniele Girard in a bar in Jean-Luc Godard's Bande à Part? The scene was so pivotal for Quentin Tarantino that he named his production company (A Band Apart) after the film and paid tribute when he had Uma Thurman and John Travolta shimmy across the dance floor in Pulp Fiction.

While male stars such as Travolta and Patrick Swayze built their reputations on iconic dance routines, their female co-stars often enjoyed a lacklustre reception after the dancing ended. Olivia Newton John in Grease and Karen Lynn Gorney in Saturday Night Fever were very much the also-rans. Likewise, Jennifer Grey never managed to break free of the shackles of Dirty Dancing, even as Swayze went on to bigger and more successful movies.

But the film that sounded the death knell for risqué dance movies was Showgirls. Elizabeth Berkley had a rising career until it was stopped dead in its tracks by her appearance in Paul Verhoeven's movie about a young drifter who arrives in Las Vegas wanting to become a top dancer. Ridiculed by critics, Showgirls won a record number of Razzies (8) and was named the worst film of 1995. A year later, Demi Moore's Striptease followed it up, also taking home the Worst Picture Razzie.

Now, Showgirls enjoys something of a cult status and is one of the most successful releases on the home entertainment market. Burlesque is notably trying to tap into the same market. It has pretty much the same storyline as Showgirls, but without the sex, and plenty of gay-friendly jokes (despite nearly all the characters being straight).

In On Tour, however, Amalric has eschewed the Hollywood convention of making dancing girls kitsch and has gone for a darker approach that goes to the heart of our enduring fascination with burlesque and dancing girls. It follows a former TV producer (played by Amalric) who sees the girls and a successful stage show as a way of reinventing himself and returning to prominence in France. He sets up a tour and promises the girls a big night in Paris, which, it soon becomes apparent, is never going to materialise.

Amalric's masterstroke is to have cast real-life burlesque girls in his film. These women with names such as Kitten on the Keys, Dirty Martini and Mimi Le Meaux have real bodies that are a million miles away from the skinny girls Hollywood likes to put on screen. When they appeared on the red carpet at the world premiere in Cannes this year, they stole the show.

Using his real dancing girls, Amalric was able to set up a real tour of France with real audiences, so much of the stage action seen on screen is taken from real live performances. Even the hotel scenes are shot in the places the troupe stayed in while touring. The final result is a mixture between drama and documentary.

While Amalric may direct and play the lead role, it's the girls, with their heady blend of power and vulnerability, who emerge as the real stars. Their faces and bodies tell their own story as their problems come to the fore. Still, they never lose their power to entertain and titillate. It's something that films like Burlesque would do well to heed, if girls dancing on screen are ever to become as fashionable as they were back when Monroe was serenading presidents.

'On Tour' is out today; 'Burlesque' is out on 17 December

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
    Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

    Front National family feud?

    Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century