Madonna: Truth or Dare May 30, 2015
I don’t know shit about Madonna*. I know that the media has a fixation on her aging (how dare she have a wrinkle at 57 years old?), that she almost died at this year’s Brit Awards while performing “Living for Love,” that she sliced censors in half during a controversial 1994 interview with David Letterman, that Robert Christgau thinks she’s a pop genius, that the LGBTQA+ community loves her, that she’s, all right, clinging to her youth. But that ain't nothing. Maybe I could sing the chorus of “Holiday." But that’s it. I’d recognize her if she were to walk down my street. I saw her in Dick Tracy once. She was pretty good in that.
Why I watched Madonna: Truth or Dare last night is another story; you’re probably wondering how it goes. The final few days of May are here, and I’ve felt the need to cram in as many movies headlined by the stars of the month as possible to fulfill the monthly duties I gave myself. One can only praise Hepburn and Tracy movies for their intelligence for so long before they turn into a Jabba the Hutt of repetition.
So call me crazy, call me movie-obsessed; any time I have a grueling period of movie watching, I take a break. By watching more movies. Movies I don’t care about at all, movies I don’t have to review. Of all movies available to me, I don’t know why I picked Madonna: Truth or Dare; I guess it’s because rock documentaries are undeniably entertaining inside looks into the personal lives of their subjects. Seeing an icon as a person is a refreshing change of pace from fictional verve.
I wasn’t originally going to review the film, but it is much too coercive to resist talking about. I suppose I was expecting a sort of Vogue tinged romanticism, painting Madonna as a pop figure still untouchable, like how Ready to Wear made the fashion world funny, nowhere near realistic, but was all the better for it. For all the cultural bullshit that misunderstands her, Truth or Dare dares you to hate and love the pop superstar at the same time, wanting you to scoff at her need to be the STAR of every moment, wanting you to appreciate her relentless work ethic, her need to be an entertainer at the top of their game. And like all good documentaries (and why this one is so damn good), the film is riveting for everyone, outsiders and insiders alike. I wasn’t a Madonna fan before the documentary nor will I be afterward, but as a rock documentary, Truth or Dare stands as one of the finest.
Recording the entirety of her 1990 Blond Ambition tour, the film is essentially an inside look into what a day, a night, a week, a month, a year, looks like for Madonna. (Or maybe it just seems that way: a master of camera manipulation, she may just as well be putting on a show.) Photographed in grainy black-and-white, save for the colored (and obligatory) stage performances, Truth or Dare is more warty than glamorized, emphasizing her vulnerabilities, need to be the center of attention, and her wicked sense of humor (she seems to laugh more when people are having a hard time than when everyone is having a ball).
I couldn’t care less about the complicated choreographic sets that circle around renditions of “Like a Virgin,” “Express Yourself,” “Holiday,” among others; what makes Truth or Dare engaging is its frank candidness. Behind the scenes, Madonna notices that the majority of her young dancers are insecure and need mothering; strange, she remarks, how she likes to be a matriarch, to give her stage family someone to confide in. We catch glimpses of her short relationship with Dick Tracy co-star Warren Beatty, who scoffs at the fact that real life doesn’t seem to matter to her unless it is captured on camera. Cameos abound, featuring pop-ups from Pedro Almodóvar, Kevin Costner, Antonio Banderas, and Al Pacino. But there are three truly great scenes in the film, where Madonna doesn’t seem to be putting on a show, where she doesn’t seem to be trying to make herself look a certain way for the cameras.
Best is her reaction to Kevin Costner, who comes backstage for one show and describes the production as neat. Disgusted, she gags, remarking, “Anybody who says my show is ‘neat’ has to go.” Later, an old friend (pre-fame old) meets Madonna in the hallway of her hotel, asking her to be the godmother to her soon-to-be-born child. Though it is clear that the women were close back in the day, Madonna blows her off; she doesn’t want to be a mother any time soon, and she doesn’t have time to waste time with non-celebrities from the past. And in one of the closing scenes, she infamously models what a blow job from Madonna would look like on a glass bottle. Minutes later, she describes her true love as Sean Penn, heartbroken, regretful.
Fakery of course comes around — the scene where she visits her mother’s grave doesn’t feel all too sincere, rather the documentarian’s hope to make her appear bare-bones hopeless — but Truth or Dare, ultimately, is a winning documentary that makes the once chart-dominating pop star more fascinating, and timeless, than ever. B+
*Since, I have become a huge Madonna fan.