Burlesque

BurlesqueSynopsis: A small town singer, Ali (Christina Aguilera), moves to the big city for her chance at stardom where she is enchanted by Burlesque, a glamorous nightclub packed with dancers, sizzling music, and an owner (Cher) in need of a star. Jam-packed with visually stunning musical numbers and an all-star cast featuring Eric Dane, Kristen Bell and Stanley Tucci.

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Burlesque 7.25

eyelights: Christina Aguilera. Stanley Tucci. its overall production.
eyesores: Cher. the trite dialogues. the clichéd plot.

“Alice, hm? Well, welcome to Wonderland.”

‘Burlesque’ is a 2010 musical featuring Christina Aguilera and Cher. It was a failure at the North American box office, but was a moderate success overseas, and garnered a handful of award nominations – in particular for its songs and soundtrack, including the Diane Warren penned Cher song “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me”.

I can’t say that I was ever that intrigued by the picture. Reviews for it were dismal, and I’m only a moderate fan of Aguilera (notably of her ‘Back to Basics’ album) and have no great love for Cher. And, being a musical, there wasn’t really much that drew me in. Even the soundtrack, which I’ve listened to, didn’t move me one bit.

But I was watching modern musicals and decided to lump this one in. And, you know, what? It wasn’t half bad. It wasn’t great either, mired as it was in a déjà vu rags-to-riches story and ridiculous dialogues. But I was actually surprised by how much I enjoyed some parts of it, including Aguilera’s acting – which I had expected to suck.

In particular, what I enjoyed was the look of the picture, which is set in an L.A. cabaret based on a burlesque theme. I have a penchant for the ’20s adornments that infuse this modern burlesque look, including the costumes and decorations (part of the reason why I like The Dresden Dolls, actually). Every moment in the club was a delight.

It didn’t hurt any that all of the gorgeous ladies are dressed in lingerie, of course, but there’s more to it than that, actually: burlesque can be a very tongue-in-cheek, playful style of entertainment – and I relish that side of it. It’s a mixture of sex, irony, music and dance that you can’t readily find anywhere else. It’s pure, unbridled fun.

Another thing I really enjoyed about the film was its soundtrack. While I wasn’t that keen on the songs themselves, which seem to blend into one another much like the ones in ‘Chicago‘ do, the songs sounded terrific, vibrant, on DVD. I can only imagine what it must be like on Blu-ray. As well, Aguilera’s vocals sounded phenomenal, powerful, alive.

I was quite surprised by Aguilera – not as a song and dance artist, of course (having seen one of her live shows), but as an actress. Look, she won’t win any awards for her turn as Ali, but she was rather natural much (not all!) of the time – which, for a singer trying her hand at the craft, wasn’t at all bad. There’s certainly been far worse.

I was also a bit smitten, I must admit, so perhaps I am biased: when she’s not glammed up, Aguilera is quite beautiful. She spends much of the film “au naturel” and she’s really lovely to look at. Ironically, at one point Tess (Cher) does Ali’s make-up for her and glams her up. Ali is blown away by the change – and yet, she looks better without.

But that’s something you have to expect with Aguilera – she is, after all, addicted to glamour. I haven’t seen a recent pop star so drawn to thick make-up, shiny clothing and trinkets, as she is. It’s too bad, because she could have a gorgeous girl-next-door look, but she chooses to hide behind glitter. It’s perfectly in keeping with the setting, of course.

Speaking of looks… what the heck happened to Cher? I mean, I knew she’d gone under the knife a fair bit, but… which surgeon allowed this metamorphosis to happen? Honestly, she creeps me out now: she made me think of Joey Ramone in drag – not a pleasant thought, and even less pleasant to see. I sat there stunned each time she was on screen.

She can still belt it out, though. She has a contrived solo number which truly puts her pipes on display (it is said that she pulled that one off in one take). And she’s an okay actress, if you get past her frozen features. I was half-worried that something would pop off if she expressed herself too much. Honestly, it’s almost a handicap now.

She had terrific support from Stanley Tucci as the club’s costume designer. He was the highlight of the show next to Aguilera. I enjoyed how sober and grounded he was and how he plays a gay man without affecting any of the clichéd vocal inflections or gesticulations. You would almost not guess that he was on the other team.

The rest of the cast was okay, but not stellar: Kristen Bell got by (the magic of editing helped her musical numbers), Cam Gigandet was okay as Christina’s new friend (and love interest), Eric Dane was bland as Cam’s rival, Peter Gallagher was ragged and irritating as Cher’s ex, …etc. Only Alan Cumming was truly enjoyable, doing it all with a wink.

For me, ‘Burlesque’ hit a snag the moment that Ali did her first solo number in the club. People went crazy for her performance, cheered, mobbed her – even her colleagues, whose spotlight she’d just co-opted. It felt facile and unrealistic, leaving me incredulous. Hey, she was good, but not that good – not enough to convert the world.

Don’t get me wrong: Aguilera’s performances are fantastic – she really delivers. It’s a question of context, that’s all. In fact, if she wasn’t already a star, this would have been a star-making turn: right from the onset she delivered an incredibly passionate vocal – and even managed to top that later in a solo number in the club. She’s terrific.

But, after that first solo number, ‘Burlesque’ isn’t just satisfied with that convention – it starts to pile them on:

  • Ali’s rival tries to hinder her success (check!)
  • conflicted relationship with Cam (check!)
  • a rival love interest putting Ali and Cam’s future relationship at risk (check!)
  • the rival isn’t all he appears to be (check!)
  • the blossoming love between Ali and Cam is put in jeopardy (check!)
  • the club is on the brink (check!)
  • the club is saved at the 11th hour with Ali’s help (check!)
  • everyone becomes friends in the end (check!)

It stretched to the dialogues, which, although passable at first, end up churning out one cliché after another. At one point, I started predicting what would be said next and I was frequently right. It doesn’t mean that the script is entirely trite (in fact, there was some wit to it), but it’s not surprising that it was mocked in some circles.

The worst part of the script for me was that it made it hard to root for Ali. Although she first comes off as a nice girl with big dreams, her ambition makes her a bit too pushy for my taste. And, most of all, she comes off as a jerk a few too many times: in a few unnecessary put-downs of her rival, and in the way that she treated Cam.

But, on the whole, ‘Burlesque’ was entertaining. It’s not brilliant, and it could have been polished a bit, but I enjoyed it more than ‘Chicago’ and it’s certainly better than ‘Showgirls‘ (which has similar themes). I can’t imagine that it would play well without a decent sound system (listen to those DRUMS!!!) and large screen, though.

It’s too bad that it failed at the box office, because Aguilera deserved another turn – and this likely blocked any chance of seeing her on the big screen again. Someone either overestimated her appeal and/or fanbase, or the quality of the script. I vote for the latter: Aguilera brought her best game – only better material could have made her shine more.

Date of viewing: May 5, 2014

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