Outliving Michael Jackson and Prince, Madonna is the sole survivor of the holy triad of pop superstars born in 1958. She turned fifty-eight last week; also celebrating a (milestone) birthday is Alek Keshishian’s immensely pleasurable vérité backstager/concert doc Madonna: Truth or Dare, now twenty-five years old. Reviewing the film in the May 14, 1991, issue of the Voice, J. Hoberman praised Truth or Dare as “a remarkable portrait of a sacred monster in her prime.” The description remains unassailable — and is now all the more poignant, considering Madonna’s diminished stature today. Though she is still active in a variety of fields and endures as one of the most famous people on the planet, she has, of course, been eclipsed by others in the past quarter-century; Queen Bey has for several years worn the crown that once sat atop the head of Her Madgeness. Nor has Madonna, an artist in the decadent phase of her career, been immune to the ignominious imperatives of portfolio-diversifying: She repurposed the name of Keshishian’s documentary for a “lifestyle brand” that she launched in 2011 specializing in handbags, footwear, and fragrance.
And yet for this Gen X critic, the experience of revisiting Truth or Dare — which I returned to repeatedly in theaters during the spring and summer of 1991 — for the first time since its initial release prompted a flood of memories about Madonna’s enormous influence on American culture, and, by extension, on my life: Nearly every conversation (public or private), academic essay, and broadsheet op-ed about race, gender, and/or sexuality from roughly the mid-Eighties through the mid-Nineties inevitably involved the Material Girl. During these peak years of postmodernism, Madonna, unparalleled provocatrice and recycler of high and low iconography, operated, per Hoberman, “as a sign system” unto herself. She was excoriated by bell hooks in her 1992 book Black Looks: Race and Representation for her cannibalizing of African-American culture and lauded in 1990 by Camille Paglia in the New York Times as “the future of feminism.”
At the D.C. law firm where I had a miserable entry-level job, Madonna’s ’92 coffee-table book Sex was passed around like smutty samizdat among the senior partners, paralegals, and support staff; among my co-workers, she was either dismissed by the uptight and obtuse as narcissistic or looked to, primarily by secretaries living in the suburbs, as a model of aspirational bedroom practices. For a not-quite-out teen and young adult, as I was then, Madonna’s role as sapphic signifier — whether covert (as the object of Rosanna Arquette’s fascination in Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan from 1985; whatever she was up to with Sandra Bernhard on David Letterman’s show in 1988) or overt (evidenced in the infamous Steven Meisel photos that ran inRolling Stone shortly after Truth or Dare’s release; several tableaux in Sex) — functioned as both lure and repellent.
The Madonna captured in Truth or Dare is all and none of these things, a tiny, hard body bearing the weight of the symbols and symbolism ascribed to her (by herself, by others, by me), personas that she shrewdly dons or sheds at will. Keshishian’s documentary tracks Madonna in several different cities around the globe during her 1990 “Blond Ambition” tour, her third, mounted in support of her albums Like a Prayer and I’m Breathless, the soundtrack to Dick Tracy. (The 1990 Warren Beatty–directed project is one of seven titles showcasing the singer’s thespian skills — and limitations — that will screen in “Body of Work: A Madonna Retrospective,” which runs concurrently with Metrograph’s revival ofTruth or Dare. Beatty, Madonna’s romantic partner during the “Blond Ambition” tour, smugly skulks in the background in Keshishian’s film, the old guy getting his comeuppance when his girlfriend demands, “Get over here, you pussy.”)
In dressing rooms, hotel suites, and ladies’ lavatories, among other intimate locations, Madonna and her crew are filmed in black-and-white 16mm; onstage, their pulse-quickening numbers (“Express Yourself,” “Like a Virgin,” “Holiday,” and others) are rendered in effulgent, almost garish, color. Madonna is a machine; an ever-yammering, saucy mouth; and, most queasily, a “mother,” a self-designated role she remarks on several times in voiceover (and for which she was especially rebuked in hooks’s essay). “I think I’ve chosen people who are emotionally crippled or need mothering in some way,” says the superstar, who lost her own mom at age five — and whose Truth or Dare visit to Ma’s gravesite, scored to “Promise to Try,” reveals the singer’s talent for the unbearably maudlin.
Among those “cripples” are her seven backup dancers, mostly gay black and Latino men, all of whom, along with supporting singers Niki Haris and Donna De Lory, first reached wide visibility in Madonna’s “Vogue” video from 1990. (That septet is the focus of Strike a Pose, a doc that screened at Tribeca in April and that will open in theaters early next year.) Auditioning for the singer at a nightclub to land the “Blond Ambition” gig, two of the dancers, Luis Camacho and Jose Gutierez, were members of the House of Xtravaganza, one of the ballroom clans immortalized in Jennie Livingston’s documentary Paris Is Burning, released the same year as Truth or Dare, with which it forms a crucial diptych. Livingston’s film, like Keshishian’s, is an essential investigation of queerness, race, and stardom — as lived by those whom Madonna flagrantly cribbed from and who, in turn, have achieved a kind of immortality that may forever elude her.
Madonna: Truth or Dare
Directed by Alek Keshishian
Opens August 26, Metrograph