It tends to be the norm that, when recreating the life of a legend in biopic form, the rendering comes out all wrong. This is not exactly the case with 1994’s Madonna: Innocence Lost, a TV movie that aired on Fox and emphasized the early beginnings of the singer’s (portrayed by Terumi Matthews) career. Its largely accurate, if not highly stylized, interpretation of Madonna’s hand-to-mouth existence as a ragamuffin of the downtown New York scene from 1980 to 1983 possesses the sort of terribleness you would expect of a TV movie—but it’s the kind of trash diet that leaves you feeling fulfilled, somehow.
Based on Christopher Andersen’s 1991 biography Madonna Unauthorized, the film’s introduction borrows verbatim from a three-page letter Madonna wrote to Stephen Jon Lewicki to appear in his 1979 underground feature A Certain Sacrifice. In it (and in the voiceover by Matthews), she writes, “I was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan where I began my childhood in petulance and precociousness. By the time I was in the fifth grade, I knew I wanted to be a nun or a movie star. Nine months in a convent cured me of the first disease. During high school I became slightly schizophrenic as I couldn’t choose between class virgin or the other kind. Both of them had their values as far as I could see.” It’s through quotes such as these that we are given the veracious-feeling lens of Madonna’s early days pre-New York and, subsequently, pre-fame.
Director Bradford May (who has a robust TV movie resume, including Marilyn and Bobby: Her Final Affair and Amy Fisher: My Story) and screenwriter Michael J. Murray cull the most important elements of what drives Madonna to succeed—the death of her mother, Madonna Sr., and the approval of her father, Tony Ciccone (played by Dean Stockwell)—in order to render her as a hungry-for-stardom Calypso willing to do whatever it takes to hit the big time.
Starting out with Madonna backstage steeping her tea with honey (a detail that becomes clearer to the viewer later on) at the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards—the inaugural year it aired, mind you—the barometer for cheesy dialogue is set when she states to her producer, Mitch Roth (modeled after Danceteria DJ Mark Kamins), “You know, I didn’t expect it to be this way.” He asks, “What way?” She pouts, “Well, where is everybody? I expected to have a room full of friends and family. I mean, it’s my first time on TV. Where’s the celebration?” Without missing a bit, Roth says, “Get used to it Madonna.”
Indeed, Kamins being historically altered into “Mitch Roth” is telling of just how many people in Madonna’s life were uncomfortable with the role they played in it—which is to say, a mere stepping stone for Madonna. As the disclaimer before the movie notes, “The following movie is based on actual events, however, some events and characters are composited or created for dramatic purposes. Some of the songs and performances were specially created for this movie. Madonna has neither participated in nor endorsed this movie.” To be sure, key figures in Madonna’s life are changed: her stepmother, Joan Gustafson, becomes Bette, her dance teacher, Pearl Lang, becomes Ruth Novak, the photographer illustrious for leaking nude photos of her to Playboy in 1985, Martin H.M. Schreiber, becomes George Bennett, Dan Gilroy becomes Paul and Seymour Stein becomes Jerome Kirkland.
Surprisingly, one of the characters not to be re-named is Madonna’s dad, Tony—which is helpful in establishing their somewhat infamously contentious relationship. Honing in on what some biographers have called her Electra complex, one of the lines Madonna states to indicate her only shred of hesitancy about dropping out of the University of Michigan in favor of heading to New York is: “Leaving my father was one of the hardest decisions of my life. He always gave me his love and support.”
And yet, this support was not enough to quell what her boyfriend Paul will call “naked ambition with no talent to back it up”—which won’t be the first time in the movie (or in life) she is maligned on the having talent front. She counters such accusations with retorts that could be placed in the TV movie dialogue hall of fame (e.g., “I have something you’ll never have: charisma.”).
Some quotes, however, like the ones from her letter, are real, but still too over-the-top to believe, as with the well-known line she gives her cab driver upon landing at the airport, “Take me to the center of everything,” doled out for good iconic folklore measure. Soon after wandering the streets of the city aimlessly, the luster of it wears off as it dawns on her that she has no place to go. What the film leaves out is that she ends up getting raped, confirmed decades later by Madonna in an interview with Bazaar back in 2013 when she stated “[New York] did not welcome me with open arms. The first year, I was held up at gunpoint. Raped on the roof of a building I was dragged up to with a knife in my back, and had my apartment broken into three times.” These events would have been some of the ripest for TV movie adaptation, but somehow didn’t make it onto the pages of the screenplay.
Instead, the more intense moments are glossed over and the director cuts to Madonna applying for a job at Donut Cave (Dunkin’ Donuts is obviously still sour about their decision to fire Madonna) the next day. She is quickly terminated after getting too creative with the donuts and too interactive with the customers. Her attempt at being a dancer isn’t quite working out as fast as she would like it to either, with “Ruth” being particularly hard on her, and calling her out for being unable to do it her way. When Madonna exclaims that she works harder than anyone in the company, Ruth counters, “Which is exactly why I took you into this company: sheer force of will. Not talent.” Again, Madonna is called out for being all ambition with nothing truly artistically worthwhile to buttress it.
Her father’s concern for her well-being prompts him to track down the apartment she’s living in and ask her, “Ten years down the line, what happens if this dream of yours doesn’t work out? You’ll be thirty and with nothing to show for it.” “That is never gonna happen to me,” she says with staunch foresight. Incidentally, in 1988, when Madonna was 30, she had entered the Guinness Book World Records for 1986’s True Blue, which had soared to the top of the charts in the highest number of countries. But back in 1981, no one had the same forecast for Madonna’s future as she did.
After leaving the Ruth Novak Dance Company, Madonna goes on an audition—or at least attempts to—only to be thwarted by the endless sea of people waiting in line to try out. She laments (as though in an infomercial), “There’s gotta be a better way.” She is, at this point, growing ever closer to the transition into music, a much easier medium to gain fame through.
Along the man-eating way, she encounters Camille Barbone (one of the few people besides Tony Ciccone to maintain her original identity), owner of Gotham Management, the final stepping stone that will get Madonna to where she needs to go in order to achieve her ultimate incarnation: pop superstar. Played by Wendie Malick (perhaps the most famous actor in this production), Camille is the one to fall hardest for Madonna, who capitalizes on the former’s homosexuality by playing into her desire. It’s because of this that Camille is allowed to deliver the tritest of all exchanges after Madonna decides to ditch her. She wails, “Did this all start when your mother died? Hm? Were you so beat up that you just decided to stop feeling anything?” Only in Madonna: Innocence Lost could such a remark be gotten away with. In this and countless other ways, it’s among the shiniest of TV movie gold that seemed to flourish most during the ‘90s.
But it’s like Terumi Matthews as Madonna says, “I take what I need, and I move on. If people can’t move with me, then I’m sorry.” Evidently, the world got all it needed from TV movies during this decade, and moved on to less satisfying tawdry fare, like Liz & Dick.