Directed and written by Steve Antin
Does this contain plot spoilers? I guess if you’ve never seen a backstage movie where an old theatre is under threat, it might. Would it surprise you that the baddie is a real estate developer pretending to save the theatre / club while planning secretly to demolish it, and that the discovery of a new singing / dancing sensation goes a long way to helping the club. But then the new star singer is pursued by the baddie, abandoning the good guy who has befriended her. The tyro star and the good guy don’t get together, and they see each other only as friends, or ‘like brother and sister,’ till near the end. Then they fall in love, but due to an unfortunate circumstance she loses trusts in him and flees to the bad guy. There she discovers his dastardly plot. And finally her ruse / scheme saves the club and everyone lives happily ever after. And the good guy even gets his composition (did I say he was a pianist?) played out as the finale music.
If that was all a new plot line to you, then apologies. It was a plot spoiler.
So it’s a clichéd plot line. It’s also a classic plot line, and it’s fascinating to see (yet again) how it’s put together, sung to and brought to the inevitable conclusion. It cost $55 million to make, and with no battles, SFX, explosions, Death Stars, no crossing the Red Sea or defeating Mordor, we have to assume it went largely on frocks, make up and star salaries.
The stars are Christina Aguilera, who plays Ali the Ingenue; and Cher who plays Tess, the toughie-with-a-heart of gold trying to keep her club together. Eric Dane is bad guy Marcus, Cam Gigandet is Jack (I thought it was Jacques, perhaps because he pretends to be gay as a bartender) the hunky good guy. Enough said? No, because there are two sublime supporting actors. Stanley Tucci plays the gay dresser and confidante, and Alan Cumming plays Alexis, another gay employee of Tess. I saw him in The Bacchae at the Lyric, Hammersmith in 2007 in an outstanding stage performance. Tucci and Cumming are perfect casting, even if Tucci is doing a reprise of his role in The Devil Wears Prada.
Stanley Tucci and Cher (as Sean and Tess) audition the hopefuls
I’ve always liked Cher. American friends, shuddering at the memory of the 60s Sonny & Cher Show, can’t see her appeal. We never had the show, so in the UK she remains the girl who sang on loads of Phil Spector records. Also, reading the David Geffen bio, when a young musician overdosed at a Hollywood party, all the stars ran away as fast as they could. Cher was the only one of the stars who stayed to help until the police, ambulance … and tabloid journalists … arrived. She still has one hell of a voice.
Cher as Tess
With these sort of things, do you cast an actor, and get them to sing? Nicole Kidman did it in Moulin Rouge, Kevin Spacey in Beyond The Sea, Joaquin Phoenix in Walk The Line, Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart. Or do you cast a singer and dancer and get them to act? Liza Minelli in Cabaret is clearly a direct inspiration for the ambience of this film. Beyoncé stormed through the vocals as Etta James in Cadillac Records and Mos Def did a fine Chuck Berry impersonation. Elvis mumbled through a score of films of decreasing quality. Bette Midler was in The Rose (but is also such a good actress that you’d have to say she’s in both camps). Then there was Cliff Richard in The Young Ones, which back in 1961 was about an old theatre threatened with closure by developers, but then this young singer came along, and what d’ya know? We got a show. With Christina Aguilera as excutive producer, the choice has been made. And Cher is a singer who has made several films before, though Burlesque is her first since 1999. Christina Aguilera co-wrote the new songs, and goes head-to-head with Beyoncé by covering two Etta James tracks, Tough Lover and Something’s Got A Hold On Me, as well as Mae West’s A Guy What Takes His Time.
One oddity. We’re told that the burlesque show is lip-synched every night, except for Tess (Cher), the only one who sings live, with her set piece Welcome to The Burlesque. This is reasonable and it’s alleged (hush!) that the all-dancing acts by Michael Jackson and Madonna were of necessity mechanically enhanced – you try dancing flat out and singing simultaneously. The mechanics of all this should not be explored too closely. They have a live band, but put CDRs in for the soundtrack to the lip synch dancing. So what do the live band do during the lip synching? Apparently they play. So is it only the vocal track that is recorded? If so, you’d need a computer, not a CD player. Anyway, in a plot hinge, Ali gets her chance to move from waitress to lip-synching dancer. Enter the other backstage movie (and sports movie) stock character: the jealous older star whose position has been usurped, Nikki (Kristen Bell). Nikki decides to destroy Ali’s big moment by stopping the CD mid number. So after a moment’s hesitation, Ali grabs a microphone, launches into real song, the band join in, a star is born. But then she dances well away from the mic and just keeps on singing. Ah. We expect that in musicals, but when you’re making a big deal about her suddenly singing live as a plot hinge, you need to keep her hand on a mic, or at least have a visible head mic or radio mic.
There is mild banter between Cher and Aguilera. Cher objects to being called ‘ma’am’ but adopts a surrogate mother role when, as Tess, she teaches young Ali to apply make-up. Poor Ali lost her mom at the age of seven so missed out on the vital female bonding of make-up tuition. Tess’s fondest memories of her mom involve doing make-up together. They spent a couple of hours of quality time a day at the dressing table. If there’s a sequel, they could get into self-administered Botox injections. Aguilera as Ali is made up to look un-made-up or lightly made-up to that point. She shares a quality with Madonna, Britney Spears and some say Monroe, of looking pretty, but quite ordinary facially without the full treatment, but making up to look sensational. None of them unmade up have the face that launched a thousand ships. A touch of powder and paint and they do. That’s a major advantage in film acting.
Ali (Alice): Before and After
The music is central, and at the start of the film we get sleazy burlesque numbers, done very well, and setting a strong style. Towards the end, both Cher and Christina Aguilera get narrative power ballads squeezed into the plot, narrative in the sense that they comment directly on the emotions of the situation. So Cher does You Haven’t Seen The Last of Me, as she hears she’s about to lose the club, and Aguilera does Bound To you as she agonizes over Jack. Neither is in burlesque style, straying into contemporary power ballad. The final song (The Beautiful People, the one Jack is supposed to have written) has only the slightest nod to burlesque, quickly becoming a big stagey “MTV young female star” piece.
I went to check out the soundtrack, looked in a couple of record stores, and was surprised not to find it. OK, it’s online, but I would have expected this one to be in the stores. How good is the music? I tracked down the soundtrack and bought it (but won’t play the last two numbers very often).