She’s the last remaining vestige of ’80s pop culture preeminence. Michael Jackson is dead. So is Whitney Houston. Along with some one hit wonders and a few significant stragglers from previous decades (Bruce Springsteen, Prince), she defined what was cool, what was hip, and heaven help us, what was sexy. Her larger than life persona guided many a grrrl power wannabe through a narrow minded mall dynamic while her pushing of the envelope saw subjects like religion, teen pregnancy, and eros soar to the top of the charts. Today, she’s an amalgamation of leftovers, pieces of popularity and personal choices (she’s a twice married/divorced mother of four) toned and honed into a pre-senior citizen gristle. For most, she remains the Mighty Mad. For others, she’s simply Madonna.
If you weren’t alive then, if you didn’t know the publicity stink this dancer turned singer turned superstar could stir up with a simple straying from the mainstream, you’ll never fully appreciate her impact. Fashioned turned on her iconic fetishism. Pop would pirouette around her every sonic blast. For vague Valley Girls looking for life after Moon and Frank, the girl from Detroit turned holidays and lucky stars into runs past the borderline of Billboard chart dominance. By 1991, she was no longer ‘just’ a performer. She was royalty, a newsworthy headline doing everything she could to rewrite the role of women in rock ‘n’ roll. It was a process she had begun the year before with the release of the racy single “Justify My Love” and would end with the Blond Ambition tour, and the perverse picture book, Sex.
As a means of furthering her multimedia persona, Madonna decided to document the aforementioned four month musical extravaganza. Heavily choreographed and loaded with controversy, Truth or Dare would redefine what many thought of the singer. It would also reconfirm in the minds of most just how self-centered, arrogant, egotistical, and isolated she was. An unusual combination of concert footage and ‘you are there’ backstage material, it was met with almost universal acclaim upon release. To this day, critics complain about the ‘rehearsed’ nature of some of the sequences, but can’t forget then boyfriend Warren Beatty’s question over whether or not she wanted to do anything outside the peering eye of the camera. Her answer has become her legacy.
In an interview before the tour began, Madonna said,”I know that I’m not the best singer and I know that I’m not the best dancer. But, I can fucking push people’s buttons and be as provocative as I want. (Blond Ambition)’s goal is to break useless taboos.” The same could be said for Truth or Dare. When compared to the truly great cinematic concert efforts of all time – The Last Waltz, Stop Making Sense – it’s certainly not the best. It showcases the flash and splash manner by which Madonna covered up such lacking talents. But with the behind the scenes material, either real or restaged, we do catch glimpses of the title. It may come from the ancillary players more than their ‘mother,’ but every once in a while, the Matriarch of the Maelstrom let her own guard down.
Sometimes, the insights are ugly. She reacts badly when actor Kevin Costner calls her show “neat.” She schmoozes shamelessly. She also screams and yells at the technical crew for blowing cues, screwing up the sound, and messing with the ‘meaning’ of her show. There is an incredibly awkward moment when a childhood friend requests that Madonna be the godparent to her unborn child, and when a throat ailment causes her to cancel several shows, the resulting ‘cabin fever’ finds everyone on their best/worst behavior. All throughout the monochrome morass that is Truth or Dare (it was filmed in black and white to give the non-concert material a ‘verite’ look) we get real emotion mixed with manipulated drama.
When the focus becomes the dancers, things get less preplanned. The men, many of them homosexual, adore their Joan Crawford like muse, appreciating her constant championing of gay rights while hating her hard assed work ethic. Like a goofy Greek Chorus, they act as counterbalance to the TMZ meets Telluride approach of the narrative. They show the weakness Madonna only feigns, the frustration the bad actress can only call up in sputters and coughs. Yes, there are times when their catty cuddles with their boss can drive you to distraction, and it’s hard to celebrate someone who so readily performs faux fellatio on a Evian bottle, but they support their Queen – and her manic majesty drinks in the adoration.
Sadly, the most meaningless part of this piece of performance ‘art’ is the music. The Blond Ambition Tour was a trial, and you can see the trauma all around Madonna. Her voice cracks and is consistently weak. The performances pale in comparison to the recorded tracks. Her song selection is suspect. Instead of traveling around the world and playing everywhere she can, she sets up shop in the major metropolises of the planet and waits for her subjects to fall all over themselves. Unlike those she inspired – Pink, Britney Spears, Lady Gaga – there is no attempt at pure musicianship. Instead, it’s a Broadway burlesque filled with set-pieces and significance, every ‘act’ in this unusual musical made up of symbols and scandal. While director Alek Keshishian does a masterful job of presenting the concert, the show’s slights are often painfully obvious.
Now, some 21 years later, Madonna’s Truth or Dare turns practically Shakespearean – as in Much Ado About Nothing. It’s hollow and calculated, like those recent exposes on Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift. Instead of wowing us with her chops, Madonna wants to numb us with her fame. We are supposed to feel sorry for a multimillionaire with unlimited resources being disrespected by those who don’t get her creative craft. Cops threaten, and we are supposed to balk at their brazenness. Of course, their target makes the warning seems warranted. It’s almost too funny.
Instead, the jokes remain on Madonna herself, a career long complaint that, today, threatens to render her irrelevant. From her bad acting to even worse displays of public nonchalance, she’s like an alien unstuck in time. Sure, she’s also a member of the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame and constantly namechecked as part of the past when music really mattered. But as with any true idol, reverence is eventually replaced by rejection. As she holds on to her last vestiges of import, Madonna can surely rest on her provocateur laurels. It may be all she has left. Truth or Dare highlights this in broad, bifurcated strokes.