Media/Whore: ‘Madonna: Truth or Dare’

Instead of wowing us with her chops, Madonna in Madonna: Truth or Dare wants to numb us with her fame.

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, 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 and 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 Madonna’s 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, Madonna was no longer “just” a performer. She was royalty, a newsworthy headline doing everything she could to rewrite the role of women in pop music. 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 1992’s kinky picture book Sex.

To further 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, Truth or Dare 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 – Martin Scorsese’s 1978 film about the Band, The Last Waltz, and Jonathan Demme’s 1984 film about David Bowie, Stop Making SenseI – Truth or Dare is 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, real or restaged, we catch glimpses of the title’s meaning. It may come from the ancillary players more than their “mother”, but every once in a while, the Matriarch of the Maelstrom let her guard down.

Sometimes, the insights are ugly. Madonna 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. 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 are less preplanned. The men adore their Joan Crawford-like a muse, appreciating her constant championing of gay rights while hating her hard-assed work ethic. Like a goofy Greek Chorus, they act as a counterbalance to the TMZ meets Telluride approach of Truth or Dare‘s 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 an Evian bottle, but they support their Queen – and her manic majesty drinks in the adoration.

Sadly, the music is the most meaningless part of this performance art. The Blond Ambition Tour was a trial; 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.

Furthermore, unlike those she inspired – Pink, Britney Spears, Lady Gaga – there is no attempt at pure musicianship. Instead, Truth or Dare is a Broadway burlesque filled with set pieces and significance; every act in this unusual musical is 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.

Some 21 years later, watching Madonna’s Truth or Dare it 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 seem warranted. It’s almost too funny.

Instead, the jokes remain on Madonna herself, a career-long complaint that threatens to render her irrelevant today. From her bad acting to even worse displays of public nonchalance, she’s like an alien unstuck in time. Sure, she’s also a Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame member and constantly namechecked as part of the past when music mattered. But as with any true idol, reverence is eventually replaced by rejection. Madonna can surely rest on her provocateur laurels as she holds on to her last vestiges of import. It may be all she has left. Truth or Dare highlights this in broad, bifurcated strokes.

RATING 5 / 10