Film-Forward Review: [BEEN RICH ALL MY LIFE]

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The Apollo Dancers at the Cotton Club Revue, 1938
Photo: First Run Features

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Directed & Produced by Heather Lyn MacDonald.
Director of Photography: MacDonald & Jon Miller.
Edited by: BB Jorissen & MacDonald.
Music by: Pete Whitman.
Released by: First Run Features.
USA. 80 min. Not Rated.

This truly inspirational documentary follows the Silver Belles, five former chorus girls now aged 84-96 who are still performing and tapping to standing ovations. They met during the 1930’s Harlem Renaissance, dancing in the chorus lines at the Apollo Theater and the Cotton Club. When the big band era ended, they all went their separate ways. But in 1985, under the leadership of their former dance captain Bertye Lou Wood, they started to rehearse and perform again and have been dancing together for the last 20 years.

Very beautiful and from all parts of America, the young women were the backbone of shows. However, the male artists of the era, the Nicholas Brothers, Cab Calloway, Jimmie Lunceford, and Louis Armstrong received all the publicity. Director Heather Lyn MacDonald’s loving portrayal of these women corrects the oversight and tells the story of the unsung chorus girls who worked 15 hour days, and rehearsed and performed a new show each week for $22.50. In fact, these chorus girls led the historic strike that established the American Guild of Variety Artists for black and white performers nationwide.

The film beautifully captures the camaraderie that developed between the women. They rib each other but clearly love each other deeply. Dancing brought them together and their love of dance, the discipline of the art form and the chance to share it again with audiences and students became a guiding force in their lives. (As I dancer, I loved watching the excerpts of the women performing. Even in their 80’s they have more rhythm, style and understanding of dance’s power to communicate than performers more than half their age.)

Their determination to keep dancing is particularly moving. One dancer, Cleo Hayes, fell down a flight of subway steps, was in a cast for months and, after rehabilitation, got back on stage to perform. Another battled breast cancer, another has a pacemaker, but none are deterred from getting back onstage. This is not just a story for dancers. Like last year’s inspiring documentary tribute Ballets Russes, MacDonald’s film is a sterling example of living life to the fullest. Haila Strauss, associate professor of theatre and dance, Marymount Manhattan College, and choreographer of over 100 musical theatre productions
July 21, 2006



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