Like many of us stuck at home, moviedom — or our recent virtual version of it — has been rummaging through the archives intrigued by films it never quite made the time for. So consider the streaming of Leilah Weinraub’s “Shakedown” (which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in 2018) an example of a movie surfacing to the top when it likely deserved our attention from the get-go.
With archival images and footage the director-cinematographer shot over the span of a decade, “Shakedown” documents the life of the itinerant Los Angeles strip club of the title. The club-within-a-club catered to a black lesbian clientele during the ’90s and early aughts. In March, . (The site even hosted live chats with Weinraub.) “Shakedown” was subsequently offered to stream via the subscription-based Criterion Channel.
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Okay, maybe a spit-take feels warranted: an adult entertainment online depot and a cinephile hub, really!? The overlap likely says something worth teasing out about the Venn diagram meeting of the two, but it doesn’t take long into the movie to see how “Shakedown” can comfortably occupy either space.
After falling hard for the gathering’s vibe, Weinraub wrangled a gig as the club’s visual chronicler, initially taking stills, then switching to video. Her access gave the director the best kind of participant-observer vantage, one that delivers vérité rawness accompanied by a savvy, tender affection for Shakedown’s denizens: its dancers, its studs, its patrons.
Small-denomination (but copious) bills get tucked into G-strings; booties bounce and coochies pop; be-glittered breasts jiggle and dancers flourish sex toys and darting tongues; and, yes, the LAPD makes a few not-entirely-welcome cameos. But what’s laid bare here is an intimate portrait of a micro-community’s vivacity and bashfulness, power and need, pride and perplexity. The overall effect is carnal but also reflective. Shakedown (both the club and doc) created room without apology or over-explanation.
“Shakedown” comes with a noteworthy art provenance: The Whitney Biennial screened a shorter version in 2017; the Wexner Center for the Arts gets thanked in the credits; in 2018, Los Angeles’ MoCA played host to an Outfest Q&A with the filmmaker and her stars, of whom a few stand out: co-owner and stud Ronnie-Ron; dancers Egypt and Jazmyne; “Mother” Miss Mahogany; and Slim, whose dancing does the talking for her, mesmerizing both sexes in equal measure. A highlight features Jazmyne and Slim taking to the floor.
Footage of crowded nights is often rough-hewn, the lighting a mix of dim and dimmer with slices of stage beams or the arc of a spotlight.
The most revelatory achievement of “Shakedown” may not be its unadorned visuals — wild as they are — but its sound design. While the images can’t quite replicate the sweaty frisson of a night out, the sound mix achieves something palpable: yes, the interviews but also the ambient noise, the (un)dressing room banter, the snippets of Ronnie-Ron’s intros and back-and-forth with guests. Additionally, Weinraub and composer Tim Dewit tap into a ruminative eros with an electronic score (reminiscent of Vangelis and “Blade Runner”) that undergirds some of the performances, images of busts (the cop kind) and nighttime views of L.A.
Here the “hood” is celebrated. Which doesn’t mean its patrons aren’t taken to task occasionally. In one scene, all swagger and sweetness, Ronnie-Ron lectures a panhandler on managing his finances. In another, she chastises her patrons: “The one thing you can say about Hispanics … they all get along.” Whether that’s unequivocally true is another matter. Her point: Act right, you all. During a set, Egypt schools the room about Shakedown etiquette, “If you straight, you don’t need to be in the front.”
Performance is at the heart of “Shakedown,” one of the reasons it’s rich fodder for brainy considerations of LGBTQ identity and gender. Miss Mahogany talks about the importance of establishing a fantasy from the jump, from before the clothes come off. A later interview finds dancer Egypt and her girlfriend at home. “Egypt is a fantasy,” says the Shakedown star of her hardcore-dance, feminine persona, repeating the line for effect. Lounging next to her on the couch, her girlfriend talks about going from “psycho fan” to romantic partner. What she once craved, well, she tells the director, “I can’t wait till she get home, take the makeup off, put on regular clothes. She Aisha again.”
The filmmaker makes very few on-screen appearances. More often she remains a casually probing interviewer or a gentle guide encouraging a star dancer to read old promotional flyers or the concluding voiceover narration.
Shakedown pulled up stakes in July 2004. The club where it was housed at the time just wasn’t working out any longer. It bounced around some, but hopes of a space to call its own never materialized. There’s little wonder then that the doc ends with a mix of the melancholy and the triumphal, the mournful and the boastful.
Nearing the club’s closing, Weinraub interviews some Shakedown regulars. One provides a blunt-infused dissertation on sexuality, featuring more than a few air quotes for “straight,” “homosexual,” “freak.” The laid-back lecture twists. It turns. It has a rather lovely terminus. One arguably born of the club’s accepting, fluid vibe: “You come back to the definition ‘gay,’ ’cause we all trying to be happy,” she concludes.
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