For all its smoke and mirrors, lathered-on kohl, and too-cool-for-school dance moves, ‘Burlesque’ impresses as a modern cinematic musical with a classic edge. Heck it might even work on Broadway and beyond. The setting is certainly in the here and now with its seedy backdrop of a Los Angeles crawling out of the ashes of a financial crisis, one finger delicately touching on eco issues, but its aesthetic is pure old-fashioned burlesque (the red curtains; the corsets; the big hair; the strappy heels).
Unlike previous showbiz musicals like ‘Chicago’ and ‘Nine’, the over-the-top aesthetics aren’t blatant from the beginning. In fact, when Christina Aguilera enters the first scene with barely a stitch of makeup on, waitressing in just jeans and a t-shirt, you don’t even realise you’re looking at the same woman who belted out ‘Lady Marmalade’ and ‘Candyman’ in all manner of dishevelled drag. Her transformation from bare-faced teen via peroxide ambition through to fully-fledged preened and pressed stage star is interesting to witness as the film builds momentum.
Cher, of course, doesn’t have much space on her canvas to decorate increasingly, and actually looks great from beginning to end in a consistent face plastered with a been-there-all-before expression, big wary eyes and those famous pouting lips. Her wardrobe is never too outrageous either and she carries herself throughout the majority of the film with grace, style and dignity.
As most filmgoers would guess, Cher is the mother hen to Christina’s Chicken Little, passing on second-hand but valuable tips on love, impressions of lust, and life lessons in general. Where the premise could have grown cornier (another big Mamma dribbling her advice and sepia memories onto one of her new star ‘gals’) instead the rapport between the two stars of ‘Burlesque’ is more of a credible enough exercise in feminine bonding (Cher wants to keep her business, ‘The Burlesque Club’, from being torn down for high-rise development; Christina wants to continue carrying her mentor’s torch).
Stanley Tucci plays Cher’s camp managerial sidekick, with more than one shade of his ‘Devil Wears Prada’ queen favourite character slipping through. It’s enough to make the actor step into the dangerous waters of typecasting and whenever he’s in the picture you can’t help but draw comparisons between that feelgood ‘lessons-to-be-learnt’ chick-flick and this one. Both films, after all, are about idolisation and disillusionment, the superficiality of glamour and the consequences of star ambition, and Tucci plays the linchpin part well enough even if his is the campest and possibly most tokenistic role in the entire movie.
‘Burlesque’ is released in cinemas January 13th.