”Strike a pose!” Madonna barks at the beginning of her hit song ”Vogue,” and in a barreling career, Our Lady of Perpetual Provocation has adopted one face after another. How ironic, then, that two new Madonna videos promise the ”real” Madonna — as if there were such a thing — and a third promises an in-concert experience presumably less canned than her music videos. ”Truth,” ”Real,” ”Live”: The warts-and-all buzzwords in the titles of Madonna: Truth or Dare, Madonna…The Real Story! and the laserdisc-only Madonna Blond Ambition World Tour Live are really empty come-ons, since Madonna’s peculiar celebrity adheres to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle: The very act of watching her changes what you see.
So even if Truth or Dare is artfully made and entertaining, it’s no less an act for being a good one. Tyro director Alek Keshishian has learned MTV Lesson No. 1: If you film it in gritty black and white, it will seem more ”realistic.” Never mind that it would be more realistic if it were in color; like everything Madonna (Truth or Dare’s executive producer) has her hand in, the film proclaims style as content.
A backstage-pass look at 1990’s globe-hopping Blond Ambition tour, Keshishian’s documentary tries to cast Madonna as mother hen to her entourage of dancers and assistants. The star, however, is so controlling of her public self that when the cameras are whirring she doesn’t know how to do ”realistic.” The moments when she tries, such as a visit to her mother’s grave, come off as awkward and forced.
Luckily, Keshishian focuses on others as well, and it’s here that Truth or Dare strikes sparks of illumination. Figures such as Christopher Ciccone, Madonna’s protective younger brother, or Oliver Crumes, a vulnerable young dancer, don’t have to play themselves: They are themselves, and affectingly so. Madonna, by comparison, is all armor.
Such slickness leaves nothing for a junky hagiography like Madonna…The Real Story! to dig into. An ”unauthorized video documentary” aimed at the bargain bins, Real Story is simply a video teen mag for gullible kids who aren’t ready for the star’s erotic politics. There are no clips from Madonna’s videos or movies, none of her songs,no interviews with friends — just still photos, old news footage, and celebrity gossip columnist Janet Charlton, who’s quoted at length sitting on a sofa in somebody’s living room. What’s missing is the star’s subversive humor and empowering confidence, two qualities Truth or Dare has in spades. Real Story’s pea-brained tunnel vision is summed up in the shot of two identically clad Madonna wannabes bragging that their idol lets them ”dare to be different.”
Truth or Dare at least lets you hear the music. Unfortunately, while its in-concert snippets of hits like ”Holiday” and ”Express Yourself” went over in theaters, on TV they feel like respites from the main event. The show itself works much better as it’s captured in Madonna Blond Ambition World Tour Live, a re-edited version of a concert in France that aired on HBO in August 1990. Because Live is a laserdisc with digital sound, the music is re-created with startling fidelity. More important, you get this two-hour spectacle as it was meant to be: uninterrupted and over the top. The gymnastic dance productions in songs such as ”Where’s the Party” and ”Like a Prayer” are astonishing, and the theatrical extravagance of ”Like a Virgin” plays as Vegas schmaltz gone hilariously kinky.
The paradox is that this may be the closest we’ll get to a ”real” Madonna. Her armor becomes a second skin onstage; she’s so in control of every back flip and lighting change that she seems relaxed, more herself. Or herselves: The 18 songs performed here give her almost as many personae to wear. Some work, some don’t — it’s the trying on that matters. What’s underneath is just an immaterial girl. A