Aptly, the theme song of Jennie Livingston’s powerful 1990 doc (recently restored and re-released) is Cheryl Lynn’s 1978 disco-pumped, ecstatically vocalized “Got to be Real.” The film deposits us in the alternate universe of drag queens and the gay “ballroom” scene of NYC in the mid-to-late ’80s, out of which the fleeting, Madonna-flamed “voguing” fad was born. Contestants vied for trophies and “a fantasy of being a superstar,” and also for attaining “realness,” with fashion-dance categories such as “Executive Realness,” alongside “Pretty Girl,” “Luscious Body,” and “Butch Queen First Time at a Ball.”
It was a sub-scene full of passionate and charismatic outcasts, as the film amply demonstrates, living large on terms all their own and existing on fringes that sometimes sucked the literal life out of its scenesters (e.g., Angie Xtravaganza’s tragic death from AIDS). The milieu was also rife with possibilities for a good documentarian’s intimate, very much in-house investigation. This film is that, as well as an important contribution to contemporary documentary cultures, and it gains an added layer of exoticism through the retro filter.