Tempest Storm is the latest documentary from Nimisha Mukerji, the award-winning director of 65_RedRoses. Local to Vancouver, Mukerji’s accolades include being among the first selected by Oprah Winfrey herself in the Oprah Documentary Club, as well as having her work featured in Vice, CBC and National Geographic. Having dealt with cystic fibrosis and the rare disease called Thalassemia in her first two feature length docs Mukerji electing to steer clear of a terminal illness as the antagonist in her triennial feature.
Popularly known as “The Queen of Exotic Dancers”, the now 87 year old Tempest Storm is both film’s namesake as well as central focus in the documentary having its Vancouver premiere June 18th -21st at the incomparable Rio Theatre. Regarded as having had the longest career in burlesque’s recorded history, Storm’s 60+-year career as well as pursuit to mend the tattered relationship shared with her only child, daughter Patricia Ann.
Dubbed “The Tempest in a D-Cup”, Annie B. Banks knew from an early age that she wanted to walk among celebrities. Storm recounted with Roger Ebert that while attending the cinema as a child she would tell herself that “the stars were backstage, right behind the screen and someday I’ll meet them”, well after she was old enough to know better.
Meet them she did, having proudly flaunted her position as mistress to both Elvis Presley and JFK. Storm ascended from unheralded chorus girl to star of stage and screen in 1955’s “Teaserama”, alongside burlesque’s uncontested “Queen of Pinups” Betty Page.
Having a director with a propensity towards female protagonists unite with the famous redheaded starlet herself, Tempest Storm has all of the tools needed to tell the story of the Exotic World Burlesque Hall of Famer often regarded as “ The Greatest Living Exotic Dancer”. Possessing a wealth of history and footage to draw from and a lead willing to put herself out there possessing the genuine ability to emote through the camera is a documentarian dream project. Historically quite taciturn about her private life, Storm carries the film on her proverbial shoulders opening up about a lifetime of professional success stories shrouded by an underbelly of personal cost. To pair Mukerji’s level of directorial talent with Storm’s experience and experiences on a backdrop of exotic dancing, is a recipe that almost bakes itself. Factor in the resurgence in popularity that burlesque is currently experiencing and we may have a juggernaut of a documentary on our hands, not to mention another shipment of Canadian Screen Awards and deserved accolades for Mukerji.
Why then did I leave the film yearning for something more? Sure, ‘leave them wanting more’ is a cliché often properly observed, but for all of its active ingredients, Tempest Storm missed the mark.
For starters the decision to tell a story as compelling as Storm’s in linear fashion is perplexing. In a three part documentary structure the story-arch typically has an ebb and a flow to it, thus leading the viewer through a myriad of emotions culminating in the storyteller’s (in this case director’s) desired emotional as well as literal conclusion.
Whether due to the seriousness of both 65_Redroses as well as Blood Relative, I wonder if Mukerji lost sight of what the addition of levity can add in regards to ‘the payoff’. Mukerji continuously takes the audience down a relentless road of mortality in the film.
If given a chance sit down with director Nimisha Mukerji and editor Mark Ratclaff, I would ask them about the decision to glaze over much of Storm’s compelling and often salacious life occurrences, instead focussing on the reality we all face in our inevitable expiration date. Not to question the director on her primary endgame, which is on it’s own completely logical if not suitable. I would ask Mr Ratcliff about the pacing of the film, citing that it dragged on a number of occasions and could have lost 9 to 11 minutes to the cutting room floor; curious what with all of the plausible content seemingly available. What prompted Mark Ratcliff’s assumed decision to cut the documentary indiscriminately on and offbeat from the music bed? As if the music was placed down after the project was edited.
Beyond taking the audience down a singularly focussed path of despair — a path that very easily could have been altered by a nonlinear approach to storytelling — perhaps the most egregious of “misses” was the storytellers’ decision to reinforce dated stereotypes that only serve to stifle feminism and equal rights alike.
The decision to emphasize the trauma of a rape victim coupled with the gruesome intent and upbringing of a stepfather to serve as catalyst to a woman living a naked and subjected life on stage is both cliché and predictable.
Highlighting the performer’s choice of career over family thus resulting in inevitable loneliness indeed holds to the facts, however, the timing with which it is chronicled in the film is self serving if not brow beating.
As a storyteller in a work of nonfiction one should never alter the facts, true. The aforementioned occurrences were indeed quantifiable truths in Storm’s life, true. However, with more than one way remove the epidermis of a feline, I wonder why someone in a position of power chose to subjugate and further exploit the already exploited; over the decision to empower the aging star of stage and screen. As a woman and visible minority with a reach of potentially millions of people, it’s curious that Mukerji chose antiquated memes of generations past as the central thesis to Tempest Storm, over the notion of one person’s power to affect change.
It’s 2016 and we live in a world where burlesque and the performers who engage in the art are part of one of the most uplifting, spirit building and empowering arts communities I have ever been privy to. A group of people that by the release of Tempest Storm will continue to be misunderstood will continue to be misinterpreted, and continue to be miscategorised. The story of Tempest Storm’s life is as compelling as is the radiant starlet herself. The persecution that dancers still feel is a prevalent reminder of just how important Storm’s role in burlesque has been in the constant fight for equal rights. A fight that was never more loudly echoed than the career suicide inducing decision to wed outside of her own race (marrying Duke Ellington frontman and legendary crooner Herb Jeffries). A decision leading to Storm being ostracized, cut by movie studios, dropped from film roles and disowned by her own friends and loved ones.
But in the face of all of the persecution Tempest Storm stood by what she knew was right; and in sticking with those convictions she became the epitome of a “breadwinner” and a pillar of strength and resolve. Rather than cater to a society yet to recognize the error in its collective marginalization, Storm did with her mind and body the unthinkable, she became a success and an inspiration to women, ethnic minorities, gays, weirdoes, freaks, and anyone else that didn’t fall under the rigid ‘father knows best’ umbrella.
Yet I left Tempest Storm feeling badly for her, feeling badly about my own mortality, and feeling badly about a missed opportunity by a talented director and storyteller that could have been righted simply with the right edit.