This “BALONEY”‘s Got The Meat: Movie Review

Baloney is the name of Joshua Guerci’s highly entertaining, intensely intimate documentary which profiles the San Francisco-based, (mostly) gay, (almost) all-male burlesque troupe of the same name.  Right at its kickoff, Baloney’s handsome Co-Creator and Director Michael Phillis offers his description: “Baloney is a live show that uses theater, dance, and striptease to explore and celebrate the gay and queer sexual and life experience.”  Notice how “striptease” is only part of the definition. Indeed, there is plenty of male flesh in Baloney, both the live show and in this titillating film.  As Baloney performer Mike reveals, “We’re definitely all about the ‘smut’ in Baloney.  That’s what you came for.  That’s what we’re gonna give you.  But we’re also gonna make you THINK!”  Indeed, experts will tell you that skin has historically only been one element of burlesque. The art form also incorporates a varying mix of comedy, shock value, pageantry, spectacle, creativity, and perhaps a little bit of that classic glamour into the act. I say “classic” because so-called “traditional” burlesque had its heyday in the early 20th century before languishing in the 1940’s. However, burlesque not only survived but is now thriving and evolving, with a new generation of performers keen on finding new, exciting ways to entertain their audiences and to break new boundaries.  As Guerci’s documentary makes vividly clear, Baloney both entertains and breaks new boundaries– from a distinctly queer male perspective.  Part of breaking those boundaries, as we see in the film, comes from going beyond the broader, oft-overused images borrowed from porn and from previous generations of male stripper iconography.  Baloney knows what its audience wants, but also proudly explores, shall we say, “underrepresented” queer fantasies.  The audience sees a snippet from one of their early shows, which involved the fantasy of the suit-wearing “everyman” having an unexpected sexual encounter on the bus.  While the act is indeed a fantasy set to music and dance, the sexiness of the piece (beyond the appeal of two handsome men in well-fitted suits), lies in the fact that it’s… well, REAL! That said, don’t expect the acts in Baloney to be entirely “vanilla”: Some audience members may have to Google the significance of “yellow hankie”.   As the film explores via its mix of rehearsal footage, scenes from actual performances, and many tidbits of the guys just “hanging around”, it’s clear that one of Baloney’s goals is to explore previously uncharted territory in burlesque.  One piece, for example, explores a showdown of sorts between the phenoms of “traditional” masculinity versus gender fluidity– set in a gym!  Put another way: The creative lens of Baloney is probably as far away from that clichéd image of a male stripper in a fireman outfit/policeman’s uniform/Chippendale’s-style gear as you can get.   

Several things make Baloney the film a provocative as well as inspiring viewing experience.  First off, the filmmakers show great affinity for both their subjects as well as for the art of burlesque itself.  Secondly, Guerci is not afraid to get intimate with his subjects.  The entire cast of diverse men and one woman (all sexy in their own way) each get the spotlight and the opportunity to reveal more than just their impressive ass-ets.  Many of the performers have so-called “real” jobs, but it’s indubitably clear that Baloney seems to be the true passion for many of them.   In one of the most provocative quotes in the movie, Phillis shared how he was in the business world before returning to his true calling as a performer: “My worst day as a full-time artist was better than my best day as a full-time tech manager at this company.”  This led to him eventually co-creating Baloney with his bearalicious partner Rory Davis, who is the group’s Choreographer.  The film takes the time to go beyond “skin deep” (ahem) with the other performers as well.  One of them, Ryan, candidly speaks about how he works for a boutique– even revealing the name of the shop– but makes most of his money as an escort.  Another, Pablo, speaks nakedly about his struggle with borderline personality disorder.  Challenging the troupe’s tagline about being “gay” and “all male”, we meet two of Baloney’s other colorful characters. Beth, the “Original Baloney babe” of the troupe, is described by another member as being “great at gender gymnastics”, playing both female- and male-identified roles with equal gusto.  Aaron, destined to be labeled as “the straight man” of the movie, is asked if being in a mostly gay male group challenges his comfort level.  In one telling scene, the discussion that follows reveals more honest insight about friendships between gay and straight men than a cache of gender studies could accomplish. 

Baloney the film concludes on something of a bittersweet note, as the troupe had to cease live performances with the COVID-19 lockdown.  Still, the group took the opportunity to still delight their fans and keep their creative juices flowing, as shown in the final scene.  You’ll have to watch Baloney to find out just how they do that: In the spirit of any good burlesque performer, I won’t give it ALL away.  But I will add that this fun, sexy, and smart documentary packs a wallop into its 75-minute running time. Baloney is highly recommended viewing.  

Baloney is directed by Joshua Guerci, produced by Marc Smolowitz, and stars Michael Phillis, Rory Davis, Pablo Schmidt-Escobar, Ryan Patrick Welsh, Aaron Sarazan, Will Bedell, Joe Andrews, Beth Miles, Andrew Slade, and Jules Llavore.  The movie is now available on VOD via ITunes. See more viewing options here.

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