Backing singers are rarely name-checked, let alone encouraged to let their own personalities shine alongside that of the star they’re supporting. So the fact that an extraordinarily gifted group of male dancers was front and centre of Madonna’s acclaimed and controversial Blond Ambition Tour of 1990, and the accompanying backstage documentary “Truth or Dare,” was incredibly significant.
For the seven dancers — six gay, one straight — who were plucked from obscurity by Madonna herself, this was a life-changing experience. But it was also, inevitability, short-lived. Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan’s very touching documentary “Strike a Pose” considers two things: the complicated, even messy reality behind that heady moment — backstage of the backstage, if you like — and what happens to those left behind when the superstar and her spotlight have moved on.
Twenty-five years after the tour, the directors have found six of the seven dancers (one has passed away) and given Luis Camacho, Oliver Crumes III, Salim Gauwloos, Jose Gutierez, Kevin Stea, and Carlton Wilborn the chance to reflect; moreover, the film offers them an opportunity that Madonna didn’t: to speak for themselves.
Creatively, the singer couldn’t have been more generous in 1990. As Carlton recounts, her primary instruction was “Give me more of you.” At the same time, the themes that the star chose to express through the tour, film and surrounding media circus — gay rights, freedom of expression and the fight against AIDS — came with a sting in the tail for those alongside her, who were less keen than their boss to push buttons, or to have their own sexuality brandished in the media.
On top of that, some of their number were living, secretly, with HIV. One clever sleight of hand by Gould and Zwann is to show Madonna’s on-stage speech about her late friend Keith Haring, who had recently died of AIDS, urging listeners to “face the truth together,” then later in the film to return to the same clip, this time with Salim’s commentary, pointing out the evident discomfort on his face as he was standing next to her.
The film suggests that while Madonna may not have outed her dancers, their presence certainly fueled her agenda, whether they liked it or not. They were and remain role models of self-expression for many gay people, but this came with a price.
“Truth or Dare” was followed by lawsuits, for different reasons, and a gradual distancing between Madonna and her dancers, and between the dancers themselves. Life for them after such heady fame has had its share of difficulties and disappointments.
Neither these engaging men (now in their forties) nor the filmmakers themselves seem overly interested in pointing fingers. In many respects, “Strike a Pose” is a celebration of a brilliantly creative and formative period, for all concerned. It seems undisputed, too, that during the tour a genuine, quasi-family bond developed, with Madonna — who had barely turned 30 herself at the time — becoming a mother figure to her handsome boys. Was she striking a pose? We can only ask her.
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