When filmmaker Gerald McCulloch released his documentary “All Male, All Nude” in 2017, it was, for many audiences, an eye-opening first look behind the scenes at a gay male strip club. Peeling through the taboos to explore the truth behind the fantasy they present every night onstage, its profile of dancers and other workers at Atlanta’s legendary Swinging Richard’s dispelled negative assumptions about the nature of their business as it revealed the unique, almost familial bond that ties them together.
It revealed more than that; McCulloch – who is also behind the popular “Bear City” film franchise – made sure to live up to his title’s promise with plenty of full-frontal nudity.
Now McCulloch is back with a follow-up feature, and he’s made the title even more specific. “All Male, All Nude: Johnsons” doesn’t leave much room for doubt about what you’re going to see.
It won’t be a spoiler to say he once again delivers the goods, and frequently, at that. There’s more than just cheap titillation going on here, however; the director wants to show you more than a good time, he wants to introduce you to a whole lifestyle.
At first, it feels almost as if his film is a feature-length infomercial about Johnsons – the Florida “go-go club” to which the title refers. Making waves in the Ft. Lauderdale community, the club represents the dream of its owner, Matt Colunga, who was profiled in the earlier film and now takes center stage to introduce us to the boys who work for him. For a while, everyone on camera gushes about how wonderful the club is and how great it is to work for Matt, whose professed goal is to provide a safe, fair, friendly and fun environment for both his patrons and the people who work there.
Then, as the film dives deeper into some of the dancers’ stories, there’s a sense it has become a recruitment video for the stripper industry; after all, dancing in your undies is fun, it’s sexy, and it’s lucrative, so why wouldn’t you want that job?
Just as it starts to feel as if the picture we’re being shown is a little too rose-tinted to be believable, the film goes deeper into some of the stories to remind us – albeit gently, if ominously – that homophobia is still seething in the larger world outside this insular community; that comes in McCulloch’s inclusion of material documenting the pushback from business and civic leaders in Ft. Lauderdale and Wilton Manor. It also comes in the personal stories of some of the subjects – including Colunga himself – who have encountered judgment and worse in their “outside” lives from people who shame them for their sexuality, their profession, or both.
In addition, to show that there is discord in even the happiest of families, not all of the brood stays in the nest during the course of events covered by the documentary; to reveal the circumstances of those developments is unnecessary – the film deserves to reveal its own secrets, after all – but it’s safe to say they do nothing to undermine the impression that Johnsons and its crew have a good thing going, no matter what problems anyone on the outside might have with it.
As in the first “All Male, All Nude” film, the goal here is to show these people in a positive light, and that’s what shines through the candid portraits it gives us of men such as “Alexander,” an exceptionally handsome young man who supplements his Johnsons income by performing at children’s parties by day. Even if there is the occasional taboo-testing shock (like realizing the Spiderman you hired for your 6-year-old’s birthday party might also be a male stripper), the message coming through is never anything but positive.
Part of the purpose behind that, of course, is to help viewers see past the prejudices and stereotypes they’ve been conditioned to believe – even if they are avid strip club patrons – and recognize that these men are no different from anyone else, working a job to pay their bills and sock away some cash for the future. Underneath that, though, is a deeper message, implied and inferred through the repeated refrains in their testimonials, about the empowerment that comes with a sex-positive attitude. What McCulloch seems to be saying, by proxy through the guys in front of his camera, is that in claiming and celebrating the erotic nature of our own bodies, we take away the power of shame and guilt imposed on us by a repressive view of sexuality. The rest of the world may not understand these men, but they understand themselves, and they make no apologies for who they are; it gives them a confidence that runs deeper than their good looks and toned bodies, and we are as attracted to that as much as we might be to their physical pulchritude.
It’s a worthy message, but one can’t avoid thinking that being sex-positive might be easier for the model-gorgeous boys on the screen than it is for the more average among us in the audience; the fact that borderline fat-shaming is featured in one section of the movie, even as it decries the idea of slut-shaming in others, only serves to reinforce those doubts. Some viewers might also wish for McCulloch’s film to delve into the “dark” side of the business, the drugs and other excesses so often associated with the stripper lifestyle; it never does, though it sometimes hints at it, in hushed tones, as it stresses the ability of successful dancers not to lose themselves in the good-time fantasy of the job.
Still, “All Male, All Nude: Johnsons” can be forgiven for coming across as a little shallow; if it sometimes feels more like a Bravo reality series than a “serious” film documentary, it makes up for its occasional vapidity by never letting us lose sight of its huge heart. It has so much empathy and admiration for its subjects that we cannot help being carried along as it takes us on a tour of their lives and drops us off, at the end, feeling glad we’ve spent the last 90 minutes or so in their company.
Of course, the fact that these subjects frequently bare their bodies as well as their souls goes a long way toward helping is enjoy our time with them, too – and they would all be perfectly fine with that.