When someone mentions 1940s and 50s style, you might instantly think of carefully curled and pinned hair, hourglass dresses, and perfectly winged eyeliner. The femme fatales of cinema’s film noir, and the iconic figure of Marilyn Monroe loom large in public imagination and the concepts of mid-twentieth century style.
Each year, Las Vegas is home to one of the largest rockabilly/vintage festivals in the world, the ‘Viva Las Vegas’ festival, which takes over an entire hotel complex in the middle of the party capital of the USA. For many, the highlight of the weekend is the annual ‘Miss Viva Las Vegas’ competition, where contestants from all around the world gather to compete to be crowned the queen of the parade. For the cast of Bombshells and Dollies, the eras of the forties and fifties, and the icons of the past represent part of a community where they can truly be themselves, regardless of body size, race, or ethnicity.
Documentary Bombshells and Dollies follows the build up to the Miss Viva 2018 contest and the inner communities within the larger rockabilly culture. Interspersed with mobile phone footage from the contestants themselves are vox pops with each contestant, insights into the organisation and work that goes into the annual meet-up, and information segments about each of the different elements of the community, from cars and clothes, to the perceived concepts of femininity.
As interesting as the subject matter had the potential to be, Bombshells and Dollies falls down on its execution. The narrative is too choppy, weaving hastily from clips of the previous year’s festival, to a quick explanation of the rules of the contest, to chats with the new contestants. As a result, each contestant – there are twelve – simply begin to blur into each other, their personalities and backstories are undefined. Even during the actual 2018 parade itself, during each contestant’s presentation, they are not given space for the audience to get to know them, as any potential backstory is quickly merged with the stories of the other contestant who share some similar experiences.
It is clear that this documentary is made for those already in the community, who already know the contestants and their fanbases and stories. This isn’t to say the the documentary is not aware of those who are watching from outside the circle – there are segments dedicated to the music and car culture of the rockabilly scene – however, like the contestants’ backstories, these are shoved into the narrative with a frustrating invasiveness that only serves to interrupt the flow of the film.
For a contest so seeped in a nostalgic version of femininity, there is little dissection of what it means to be a woman in the 21st century, versus the constraints that many women and people of colour lived through during that time period. One contestant mentions that she likes wearing clothes that “aren’t slutty”, while the creator of the competition and the whole Viva Las Vegas event talks about how pin-ups are “[keeping] the female image” without any consideration of why that image – heavily Eurocentric and Westernised – has lasted.
That’s not to say that it is an isolated or segregated community. There are more and more women from all communities taking part in the festival and the rockabilly lifestlye, and this is shown throughout the documentary: Ivy Fox publicly comes out as a gay woman during her moment on stage, and Lil Bit, a Mexican/Guatemalan American woman, talks about the community becoming more inclusive. However, this is given little space to be explored, and the concept of the “ideal woman” is never fully examined.
Bombshells and Dollies gives an insight into a world that many people will either not have heard of, or perhaps have been interested in before, however, poor editing and narrative construction make it hard to maintain any lasting interest or connection to the compelling cast of women.
by Rose Dymock
Rose is a budding film critic, who graduated from the University of Liverpool with an MRes in Film Studies. She’s currently living back home in the Black Country in the West Midlands, juggling working full time and trying to break into criticism. She loves thrillers, great female characters, Al Pacino, and multilingual cinema. She’s not entirely sure if she’s a millennial and she wants a Lord of the Rings tattoo. Find her on twitter @rosedymock or on her website https://rosefd.wordpress.com/