Format: TCM Underground
Director: John Boskovich
This is a weird watch in 2021. I couldn't remember where Sandra Bernhard was on the cultural radar in 1990. I certainly knew who she was as I was exiting high school in Spring of 1993, and thereby hangs a tale for another day, but in 1990? Was she yet TV famous?
I will say this - I do remember kind of adoring Sandra Bernhard in high school. She was, like, a lot. But for a late-80's/ early-90's context, she was candid and caustic and smart as hell, and there wasn't much of that on TV (and less so in real life). And, she had some talent!
I do remember this movie existing, but probably only via late-night airings on HBO or something, which my family rarely had. Re-watching the movie, I'd seen one clip - maybe on Siskel & Ebert. I can't be sure. But, frankly, I totally forgot about it the past 20 years or so or I'd probably have sought it out. It was a weird little critical darling at the time, and it's hard to actually summon the energy of 1990 and remember that time. But you kind of have to, or the show won't make any sense in 2021.
There's a certain vibe of the era - the same thing that spawned the pre-occupations of Talking Heads lyrics to Church of the Sub-Genius to the book Generation X - an awareness of how @#$%ing dumb American culture had become, defined in products and commodities, stuff the Generations behind X seem to have cheerfully rolled over on in 2021. So it doesn't hurt to know *that* going in. But it's a character of Sandra Bernhard, one that would probably get red-flagged if the film came out today - and the edge of which I can kind of remember in the context of 1990 - is still kind of relevant, but we don't address those things anymore.
But it's Bernhard playing the confessional chanteuse of a lounge act - one that's supposedly that of a sort of diva (before we used the word that way) who is returning to Los Angeles after a successful run in NYC, performing the show at the places where she got started.
She sings covers, she tells stories, all while changing hair and make-up to match the songs she's singing - a Diana Ross asymmetrical 'do here, a Nina Simone look there.
She's playing with Black-ness in ways that are absolutely verboten, including her back-up band and the bored audience who isn't impressed. And the film cuts to scenes of a beautiful, bright young Black woman - a flipside to everything Bernhard's character wants to be. And that's the stuff that I'm pretty sure would get her raked over the coals now as no one would make time to investigate what she's saying or if she's the one to say it.
The New York she skewers is more or less dead, but we sure as hell remember hearing about it at the time.
But, really, I think Ebert's then-contemporary review is going to better discuss the film than myself.
We're not supposed to talk about a woman's appearance - but since the movie opens with Bernhard looking at herself and then at the audience and talking about her beauty... I don't know what to make of this. Ebert himself volunteers that Bernhard is unconventionally attractive. It's not her awkwardly working through some insecurities about whether or not she's attractive, but she is going to have you look at her for 90 minutes - and as intended - on a huge movie theater screen. That's enough to set anyone off.
The finale of the film is... something else, and plays with the notion of the confessional. She admits it's all been a ruse, and completes the show in pasties and a g-string, dancing to "Little Red Corvette". I promise you: this makes (sort of) sense in context. And the club has emptied out. Except for a single patron, herself - sort of. Those interludes of a fake Madonna suddenly click into place, and it all kinda makes more sense.
We don't get shows like this that I'm aware of much these days - and they sure don't get turned into media. We get stand-up specials that wax personal and emotional, but the meta-reading, post-modern bi-sexual auteur's faux lounge-act was maybe something that existed in a time and place and was then co-opted and consumed by the larger culture. Or disappeared like a species too specialized to survive anything but that era.
As a last note - the film has a few talking heads - and one of those is Steve Antin, writer/ director of Burlesque, and apparently pals with Sandra Bernhard. My processing bar is still chugging away on that one, but apparently: real life friends?