By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly
In 1991, a triumphant Madonna memorialized her domination of pop culture with the tour film “Truth or Dare,” a documentary so prescient about today’s entertainment landscape it’s eerie.
Madonna had spent the previous eight years creating a role that previously hadn’t existed, but now is everywhere: The pop diva auteur. Through her eponymous disco debut, the provocative “Like a Virgin,” iconic “True Blue” and Artistic Statement “Like a Prayer,” she had accrued, by tooth and nail, the kind of prestige, control and respect not before afforded to women who make dance hits.
In this moment of glory, she took to the road with her “Blond Ambition” tour, film crew in tow. The resulting documentary is fascinating to watch now, an uneven, but hugely watchable mishmash of live performances, celebrity worship, and an embryonic version of the reality television that rules our culture today.
The film is fairly unprecedented. Most previous concert documentaries focused on performances, like Prince’s “Sign of the Times,” or were myth-making exercises, such as Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Look Back.” This has a little of both, but also has Madonna pleading with her dad to come watch her show, playing mother hen to her back up singers, and being accused of harassing a dancer based on his sexual identity.
The performance segments, filmed in color, set the template, in a way, for the modern concert spectacle. At the time, rock music, especially hair metal, ruled MTV. Performance videos, even by pop artists, featured singers fronting a band on a large, unadorned stage, as though proximity to someone holding a guitar equaled credibility. Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana,” Whitney Houston’s “So Emotional,” and George Michael’s “Monkey” all fit this mold.
Madonna turned this convention on its ear, making the concert stage more like a video, rather than vice versa. Sets and costumes change based on the song in the movie, and the choreography tells a story. De rigueur now, this approach was then quite novel.
While appreciated at the time, though, “Truth or Dare’s” music is not what captured the critics’ (and public’s) attention. Rather it was the backstage scenes, shot in black and white, which captured a narcissistic exhibitionism previously unseen, but now ubiquitous. The cameras follow Madonna as she interacts with everyone in a chaotic, confrontational, and ultimately, fascinating way.
At a time when Michael Jackson and Prince hardly gave interviews, and Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston projected the studied blandness of politicians, here was catty Madonna, routinely half-undressed, getting up in everybody’s crap.
While this is something every Ke$ha-level performer partakes in today, it’s astounding to realize it’s a form Madonna seems to have intuitively invented. Her movie premiered in 1991. “The Real World,” generally considered the first reality tv show, debuted in 1993. In this way watching “Truth or Dare” is like somehow discovering a rap song from 1965.
Consider the famous scene backstage at her Los Angeles concert. In a snotty voice over she disingenuously claims not to know why famous people act like they’re all friends, when they really aren’t, while, on camera she chats, intimidatingly, with various celebrities. Kevin Costner awkwardly tells her the show was “neat,” and she disses him as soon as he walks out.
Why would she include this? It’s riveting, but so inflammatory. It’s something one would see on “Real Housewives,” but Madonna at the time was as big as Beyonce, who, as we know from “Life is but a Dream,” does not dis movie stars in her documentaries. Madonna contains masses, though, and her movie managed to give everyone everything they didn’t even know they already wanted.
The movie was directed by Alex Keshishian, who went on to make a few un-noteworthy features. At one point “Fight Club” and “Social Network” director David Fincher, who had filmed the videos for Madonna’s “Express Yourself” and “Vogue” was slated for the job, but dropped out because of scheduling conflicts. The idea of his having made this movie is too confusing, not to mention disruptive to the cinematic space-time continuum, to imagine.
Madonna’s voice over, so saccharine, faux-innocent, and just plain phony, is the film’s most jarring component. She’s clearly attempting to shape the viewer’s opinions, which seems completely at odds with her warts and all persona, leading one to wonder who she really is: The manipulative control freak? The backstage mean girl? The wounded child? Looked at through this lens, “Truth or Dare” becomes a more superficial, danceable “Citizen Kane.”
“Truth or Dare” even includes an embedded meta-critique of its revolutionary anti-privacy aesthetic, in the form grumpy, camera-shy movie star Warren Beatty’s complaints. Her boyfriend at the time, Beatty lingers miserably in the background on occasion, sarcastically commenting on Madonna seeming compulsion to document and share her every waking moment. While his thoughts seemed insightful at the time, in terms of pop cultural behavior, he was clearly on the wrong side of history.
Madonna’s documentary made a big splash at Cannes in ’91, and performed respectably in the theaters, but has been largely lost in our discussion of her, which is a shame. She was clearly onto something here, inventing a language of entertainment we’ve all slowly become fluent in.
While it doesn’t contain the power and perfection of her best hits, its imperfections–the sloppiness, sensationalism, bad behavior, and desperate need for recognition–were all decades ahead of their time.
The woman deserves her due: it’s her documentary–we’re just living in it.
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