Leilah Weinraub’s documentary Shakedown, about a famous and near-legendary underground L.A. Black Lesbian Strip Club/Troupe from the early 2000s, features many a scantily clad shot of women performing erotic and beyond suggestive dances. These moments, shot under shadows and neon lights, with digital video grain adding to the “past our bedtime” feel, may bare almost all (and sometimes does) but are not purely about garnering titillation. There’s jiggling and twerking and bouncing and close-but-no-cigar smooching, blurring the line between what is show and what is real.
Shakedown is prime in being a jack of all trades type movie, blending “save the establishment” trope with concert/performance footage and community drama, exceeding in showcasing the skin beneath the sparkle, though Weinraub’s dedication to the story sometimes gives way to having more flash than picture.
Often in the background, we’ll hear the female owner, Ronnie, belting out lines of encouragement and positive reinforcement for her ladies and for the audience. The crowd participates by tossing around cash, sometimes getting pretty close and touchy-feely, but usually within reason. Shakedown’s coverage of this culture, confused with extreme drag it’s noted, uses materials ranging from public access VHS tapes to consumer grade on the street confrontation to crystal clear high definition. The effect is almost found footage, making this film an artifact of a bygone time and place than anything. Weinraub captures everything, from interviews to in your face/fly on the wall conversations, with attentiveness and courage, spending the kind of effort only someone who truly cares would give.
There’s some great razzle-dazzle here, and not just in the costumes and tight clothes being worn. Music, found audio, photographs/scanned images, and playful use of bright colors grace the screen with a mix that goes deep into our newfound understanding, being more intimate and personal than simply a grand spectacle of sex moves. I spotted a stripper and a patron connecting eyes on the floor, coming close to kissing but maintaining distance. Later, we see a couple that started a romance from similar circumstances. This is exactly what needs to be seen and felt to “get” what this particular group is all about. It’s fun, it’s sensual, it’s over the top, it’s engaging.
There is, of course, plenty of substance to be had over the course of the short running time, but Shakedown is mostly about how than what or why. Rather, for all of its style and glitter, it’s attention is primary to that of the acts themselves, to their existence in the moment. Weinraub does have bits where she re-visits what she shot years before but doesn’t so much consider the meaning of it all, choosing a poetic if awfully personal/important to self-sentimental finale instead. It’s a nice and kind sendoff, but almost too sugary sweet. Too close to the subject, perhaps.
I’m hung up on whether Shakedown was more of a dreamscape than a “film” or “documentary” in the traditional sense, and whether it should be reviewed/rated/graded in my standard way. Could I be too detached and removed from the world depicted? I would say no, and not just to save face as a cinephile, but because I did feel when watching. Maybe it was the occasionally obstructive way Weinraub injected and interjected into the story, making it more confused as to what genre it was. Whatever the case may be, she has without a doubt made a film of impeccable creative energy, of bridging live performance with cinema, of true resonance. Still, I’m left with wanting more. Keep your eyes peeled on this director, as I will mine.
RATING: 3.5 / 5
Shakedown screens Friday, 11/30 as part of Shotgun Cinema’s Full Aperture series.
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Bill Arceneaux has been an independent writer and film critic in the New Orleans area since 2011, working with outlets like Film Threat, DIG Baton Rouge, Crosstown Conversations, and Occupy. He is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association and is Rotten Tomatoes approved. You can view his other film reviews and articles here.