'Tempest Storm' tells public, private stories of the Queen of Burlesque'

In the 1950s, Tempest Storm was an international star, the queen of burlesque and a mistress of both Elvis Presley and John F. Kennedy.

Unknown to the public, then and now, Storm had overcome a brutal upbringing, lost much of her career because of a interracial marriage and sacrificed her relationships with her family, including with her daughter to keep working into the 21st century.

“There are two stories, of her history and of what is happening to her right now in the present," Nimisha Mukerji, said of her documentary “Tempest Storm.” “I was excited to jump into the present. This is a chance to see someone coming to terms with her past.

“She didn’t want it to all sound like it was easy. She was a very ambitious person with a very lonely, solitary existence, like a lot of celebrities. But we don’t hear about that. She faced a lot of judgment. She still faces a lot of judgment.”

Mukerji will be in Lincoln Friday to talk about “Tempest Storm” after its 7:30 p.m. screening at the Ross Media Arts Center. So will the 89-year-old Storm, who is flying in from her Las Vegas home.

“She loves traveling, she loves visiting cities,” Mukerji said. “She’s never been to Nebraska before, even when she was a performer. She’s very, very excited to come out.”

Even with its unflinching honesty, Storm endorses the movie, enthusiastically joining in the promotion of what Mukerji calls a collaboration with the woman who started out as the subject of her film and is now a friend.

“I was terrified to show her the film, I didn’t know how she’d react -- all documentary filmmakers have that fear,” Mukerji said. “But she likes it. The reason why this worked is because we told the truth. There’s nothing in the film that’s taken out of context. It is just who Tempest is. To me, it’s the most fulfilling feeling, that we’ve made this film together and we stand up together to talk about it.”

Mukerji didn’t know anything about Storm before beginning the film. Her producing partner was working on a Ph.D., studying women’s sexuality and had interviewed Storm while looking into burlesque. She passed the audio recording of the interview on to Mukerji.

“She said ‘There might be a movie in this. She’s the last performer of her era. She’s very private, I don’t know if she’d agree to a film, but she just recorded an album with Jack White,’” Mukerji said.

Mukerji then met Storm, who eventually agreed to do the picture. But the director said Storm wasn’t the brassy extrovert she had expected.

“I loved her shyness, Mukerji said. “That’s what interested me most about her. She’s an entertainer, known for taking her clothes off and yet she’s so private. There had to be a story there.”

That story begins in Georgia, where the young Tempest’s happy childhood was destroyed by an abusive stepfather. By 20, she’d survived two abusive marriages, finding a way out by becoming a burlesque dancer.

“For Tempest, it was one of the jobs that someone who had no education, no connections in show business could get,” Mukerji said. “It was a way to gain control over her life and her body.”

While she got the job because of her busty figure and it entailed taking off her clothes down to her pasties, burlesque was a far cry from today’s nude or nearly nude dancing.

“To her, there was an art to it, it was about the art of the tease,” Mukerji said. “Today, burlesque has had a small resurgence and she loves that. It’s not supposed to be about the nudity. It’s supposed to be about the seduction.”

Even so, Mukerji said, it was difficult to get funding for her film from men, who didn’t want to see the present-day Tempest. Instead, she said, they were only interested in Storm’s career.

“It was ‘We’re mostly interested in the affairs she had,'” Mukerji said. “Tempest is used to that. She’s always asked ‘What was Elvis like in bed?’ She takes offense at that. It was private. So this is not a sensational tell all. We got those answers, but it didn’t seem right to put them in the film. The vulnerability she shows in the film is far more interesting than any one-night affairs.”

“Tempest Storm” does make mention of the affairs, and details Storm’s career via some vintage clips, including a scene from her movie with another '50s sex symbol, pin-up model Bettie Page, taking her up to her final performance, when she took a tumble on stage at the end of performance -- in her 80s.

“Unlike Betty Page, who refused to be seen in public at a certain age, she was out there until she broke her hip,” Mukerji said. “She’s still out there now, in a way.”

For a few years, the filmmakers traveled with Storm to tell the second story, following her to appearances at celebrity conventions, visiting friends like the late producer/director Garry Marshall, trying to find out about her biological father and reconnect with her estranged family, including her husband Herb Jeffries, the “Bronze Buckeroo,” the first black singing cowboy in the movies who had worked with Duke Ellington.

The two stories come poignantly together in the film’s final scene, which finds Storm in a white dress in a cotton field like the one she’d worked in as a little girl.

“Besides being on stage, that cotton field in Georgia was the most at home I saw Tempest,” Mukerji said. “Maybe we saw her going back to when she was a little girl. She was so comfortable and at peace, she just started dancing. I didn’t know we had that footage. But when we pulled it out, the editor said ‘This is the ending of the film.’”