If you’re from or living in Vancouver like I am, then you are more than familiar with the existence of a burlesque community, as there are many different groups throughout the city ranging from beginner and amatuer to award winning professional troupes who sell out ticket sales at their venues consistently. Rather than the dinge and dirtiness of strip clubs like the No. 5 Orange, burlesque comes from brings exotic dancing to a level of classiness that is both admired and applauded by the people involved and the fans very close to it. It is a stage craft that inspires and empowers as much as it dazzles audiences and it is celebrated in this city for sure.
The roots of what makes burlesque so popular in culture right now definitely isn’t that terrible Cher and Christina Aguilera movie, actually called Burlesque, but more having to do with the twentieth century resurgence of it, notably around 1932, led by names like Sally Rand, Gypsy Rose Lee and, the subject of this documentary, Tempest Storm. It’s at a big time for burlesque in this new millennium and it’s the perfect time for British Columbia filmmaker Nimisha Mukerji to give us a look at a star, largely considered to be the greatest of all time at what she does.
Tempest Storm is a look at the life of a burlesque dancer who has ascended to be one of the most famous in her industry but an accomplishment that may have cost her more of her personal and family life than it may be worth, especially in the twilight of her years. The film chronicles her beginnings in the deep south of America to her emergence on the stage and beyond. Famously, she would start publicized affairs with such notable people like John F. Kennedy and Elvis Presley. These connections would make her notorious in the media. Speaking of ‘notorious’, the film also explored Tempest’s connection to one of the most infamous American pin up models ever, Betty Page.
The film is largely focus on Storm’s existence at the present time, now completely retired from the stage after a 2012 hip replacement and relegated to signing autographs at burlesque conventions, still a very popular draw. Being eighty eight years old now, the bonds that she let fall away now haunt her in her solitude. The brothers and sisters that she hasn’t seen in decades are more than open to her coming to reconnect but her estranged daughter is seemingly obtuse to her mother after a decade of silence, something that is hard to fault her for. At the base of all of this is Tempest Storm’s need to have some sort of resolution to these relationships and, most of all, the truth of who her real father was, something that threatens to change everything.
I feel, from the outside, that Tempest Storm’s story is a very interesting one but unfortunately I feel that director Mukerji’s manipulations for dramatic effect may dull the exploratory nature of the documentary enough that we really feel like we’re not even scraping the surface. Stories feel clipped and edited with many elements of the narrative seemingly omitted. Something as large as a relationship between her and the King of Rock and Roll seem so shrugged off that it almost seems like a footnote and not even one of worth. The JFK story is even worse, maybe a mumble half paragraph of information that doesn’t abate the hunger we had for this time in her life, so implicitly sold to us in the description of the film.
The narrative direction this film takes you on is very unsatisfying, mostly due to the confusion of it’s ordering. There is no real flow to this film at all, as the timeline is a jumble of going back and forth across Tempest’s life. Three times were brought back to significant moments in her upbringing at completely nonsensical moments that draw us out of another aspect of her life that we’re trying to focus on. The direction of the film meanders so much that we either think that both the filmmaker and subject are trying to blur certain moments in her life or that Tempest Storm isn’t all that much there anymore and has a hard time recalling these times herself. In the end, Mukerji might have completely undersold her subject.
The burlesque community and all that residing within it will definitely eat this movie up because, at it’s heart, it is the story of a woman that overcame great adversity to be a giant in her class of entertainment and that is something totally admirable no matter who you are. Others searching for a deeper and soul raking documentary will find a film that is frequently tugging on it’s own reigns, stopping fast before any full revelations actually come to fruition or and soul shattering truths are realize. In the end, Tempest Storm feels like we’re being cheated out of the real story. A two out of five.