The unfortunately sordid saga of the Chippendales is truly the stuff of movies. The very real tale, involving glamour, dancing, sex, heartbreak, possible assassinations, and actual murders, has now become a Hollywood magnet. In the last year alone, Kumail Nanjiani and Dev Patel were confirmed, respectively, to star in a Hulu limited series and a film version of the story. They will each play Chippendales founder Somen “Steve” Banerjee, an Indian immigrant who thrived in the untapped female libido market when the club opened in 1979. With this story about to take over pop culture discussions, Discovery+’s new four-part docuseries Curse Of The Chippendales arrives at just the right time. It offers an illuminating insider look into the stupefying drama behind Chippendales’ rise and fall. However, the almost hour-long runtime per episode drags out the scandalous story, making it almost repetitive.
The series kicks off at the Las Vegas FBI branch in July 1991 with an ominous warning. Retired FBI officer Steve Garriola recalls how a man walked in, claiming he was hired to kill two male dancers in London who were seen as Chippendales competition. For those unfamiliar with the story, director Jesse Vile instantly establishes the kind of twists to expect in Curse Of The Chippendales. The series then moves back almost two decades to 1975, when Banerjee was the owner of Destiny II, the only Los Angeles nightclub open until 4 a.m. at the time. The entrepreneur was in search of a new idea to build on its growing fame. It arrived in the form of Canadian businessman Paul Snider. The promoter and grifter partnered with Banerjee and his reluctant lawyer Bruce Nahin after suggesting they start a club exclusively for a female audience. The 1970s were almost over, but women owning their sexuality were still a novel concept and Chippendales was meant to cash in on it.
Curse Of The Chippendales slowly tracks the club’s raging success through the first-person accounts of those involved in it. Much Nahin’s surprise (or so he proclaims), the choreographed performances by buff men wearing nothing but spandex pants, suspenders, and bowties attracted crowds of women from across the nation. In its own way, Chippendales’ popularity was a watershed moment in normalizing stripping, and it flipped the script on who gets to do it. Vile uses an abundance of archival footage and recordings to display just how uninhibited the dancers and their audience were—almost nothing is left up to the imagination. The NSFW clips find emotional footing as a few featured male dancers talk about their time as Chippendales. Former dancer-turned-manager Roger Menache opens up about how it allowed him to become a sex symbol, while Michael Rapp goes in-depth about his 20-year career dancing and stripping for the company.
The interviews with Menache, Rapp, and other dancers like Read Scot and Dan Peterson imbue the Discovery+ series with gravitas. Curse Of The Chippendales isn’t as much about Banerjee as it is about them, and how joining the club changed the course of their lives forever. Rapp married and had a son with one of his regular customers, Nancy Dineen, who tearfully recollects being a groupie and the debilitating isolation she felt as her husband’s fame and subsequent cheating led to their separation. Their inclusion in the docuseries, especially Rapp’s refreshingly honest acceptance of his lifestyle, provides an affecting narrative to counterbalance the chaos that comes with portraying Banerjee’s unstoppable ambition, Snider fatally shooting his estranged wife and himself, and the introduction of show director and choreographer Nick de Noia. These events spiraled into Chippendales’ eventual downfall.
Banerjee brought de Noia onboard to help expand Chippendales to New York City and other parts of the country. Unlike Banerjee, who shied away from cameras, de Noia enjoyed public appearances and eventually became known as the face of Chippendales. Once again, Vile’s copious use of news footage, photos, old interviews really helps sell the intensity with which de Noia was garnering national attention, much to the chagrin of Banerjee. In 1987, a man walked into de Noia’s office and shot him to death. Candace Mayeron, former assistant producer of Chippendales, says she always believed Banerjee was responsible for the death of her friend. Here’s when the show begins to shed some light into the life of the club’s founder and owner. But it arrives in bits and pieces at the end of episode three, and doesn’t convey much pivotal information about him.
Then again, Banerjee wasn’t always forthcoming about his life prior to moving to the United States. Former creative director Eric Gilbert says here that in his eight years of working with him, he was hardly privy to any of Banerjee’s personal information. Gilbert does call him the “Steve Jobs of sexuality for women.” Banerjee was intensely smart; he entered an industry he knew had a major gap, considering strip-clubs were usually catered to men and not vice versa. He crafted the reputation of being soft-spoken and demure. Yet, as the final episode reveals, he was a cunning criminal mastermind. Banerjee was responsible for de Noia’s murder and for hiring frequent clubgoer Ray Colon to try and assassinate former dancers who moved away to rival companies like Adonis or started their own male-stripping joints. The show dwells more on his capture than it does on how the Mumbai-born immigrant landed in this precarious position in the first place.
Episode four swivels from the the glitzy visuals of the first three to focus more on the FBI working with an informant to finally arrest Banerjee for his crimes. The narrative shift is quite jarring and unfortunately slow-paced for a show about an eccentric subject like this one. It does do an excellent job of showing the lengths to which Banerjee was willing to go to be the top dog of this field. Despite the ending, Curse Of The Chippendales is a well-structured documentary series that is also a fascinating time capsule of the early ’80s disco era. Banerjee and his many crimes are almost glossed over, but it’s worth watching to better understand the lives of the Chippendale dancers, who don’t usually get as much focus and glory now as they once did.