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- Reviewed from BFI London Film Festival 2021
As a true-crime documentary, Curse of The Chippendales has it all. An all-male dance troupe famed for erotic strip shows rising from a modest-sized LA nightclub to international acclaim. The promise of sex and a glitzy sprinkle of celebrity. And ambitious, ego-driven men striving for ownership of the brand who inevitably, and tragically, destroy one another. Featuring interviews with major figures from the 70s and 80s, including dancers Michael Rapp and Roger Menache, Rapp’s wife Nancy Dineen, model and Chippendales fan Sondra Theodor, as well as club MC Richard Barsh, it offers fascinating insights into the setting up of the brand and its growing popularity, alongside the more lurid crime elements of the story. Indeed, the history of the Chippendales – established by Indian-American club owner Steve Banerjee and promoter Paul Snider – is fascinating in its own right as a story about the mainstreaming and gender dynamics of stripping in the 1980s.
The series (the first two episodes were shown at LFF) is as slick as baby oil in constructing its narrative, hitting the major beats of the true crime genre (the distressed audio of a 911 call giving way to the easy-breezy archive footage of a simpler time; talking heads’ interviews that hint at but never quite reveal the trouble to come) soundtracked by synth-drum pop classics from the era. And it’s not just the music that evokes 70s and 80s aesthetics, for the show relies heavily on the retro charms of analogue media. Freeze frames deploy static as if you’ve pressed pause on a VHS; major players in the Chippendale story are introduced like sitcom characters in split-screen credit sequences. There is disco, flirting and casual sex. This is not a series that makes the past seem like a far-off place lacking in colour. Rather, it glamourises the period by leaning in to nostalgia and making its subjects seem more free and flamboyant than in our pandemic-restricted times. From the dancers to the Playboy models, everyone is beautiful and living life in high-contrast.
A child of the 80s, I have vague recollections of the Chippendales appearing on daytime television and being widely discussed in the press, but it’s not until watching The Curse of the Chippendales that the scale and ubiquity of their presence in mainstream media at the time becomes apparent. In archive broadcast and video footage showing vast crowds of women fans, it seems like The Chippendales were everywhere. Talk-show hosts invite casual conversations with audience members about male strippers and women’s pleasure; sex, desire and objectification of the male body are a given. It’s a strictly cisheteronormative affair, focusing exclusively on straight women fans, and the documentary could be more considerate of queer desire in its framing of the Chippendales’ cultural impact. Nevertheless, it’s fascinating to see how mainstream representations of sex and sex work have transformed over the past four decades.
Compared to the more fraught discussions we have today about desire and sexuality – which, if at times stilted, are underpinned by legitimate anxieties about power and consent – the footage presented in the documentary is wildly different. In keeping with what we might call ‘girl boss feminism,’ women grab, sigh, scream and touch men’s bodies because they’ve paid for the right to do it, and, as many people reiterate throughout the show, it’s high time women got theirs given the acceptance of men’s right to visit strip clubs and to purchase porn. The Chippendales themselves enjoy the attention, too – or at least that’s what Rapp, Menache and others suggest in the first two episodes. There are hints of darker times to come and a sense of the men being intimidated by their adoring fans. But for now, without seeing the rest of the series, it seems that the show eschews judgemental anti-sex-work arguments and gives the stars space to talk openly about the positive, as well as more challenging, aspects of their work.
As with all true-crime documentaries, The Curse of the Chippendales risks glamourising the more tragic and violent elements of the story in its attempts to scandalise viewers. Despite Sondra Theodore’s obvious distress, for example, episode two’s treatment of model Dorothy Stratten’s murder lacks humanity: her death becomes just another beat in the narrative. Where the show works is in its unexpectedly sweet moments (such as Rapp doing an impromptu performance of his ‘Perfect Man’ routine) and its cultural critique. At its best, it peels back the layers of hypocrisy that go hand-in-hand with the commodification of both men’s bodies and sex work in mainstream media – and after those first two episodes, it leaves you, in true Chippendales style, wanting more.