Madonna: Truth or Dare
1991 • 122 minutes • Miramax Films
Of my problematic faves, Madonna is probably one of the most high-profile. I’m not sure when I fell for Madonna. I know when I first became aware of her—the morning after the 2003 MTV Music Awards, during which she kissed both Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera during a performance of “Hollywood” staged as homage to her twenty year old performance of “Like a Virgin” at the inaugural MTV Music Awards. What was edgy then (well, edgy to a bus full of middle schoolers in Georgia in the early aughts) is now obvious as queerbaiting.
That’s the problem with provocation for the sake of provocation—it doesn’t age well. See how I recoiled from Madonna’s early nineties ouvre when I finally sat down and plowed through her discography a few years ago. But Madonna has never been just provocation. I enjoy her songwriting, her inventiveness, her willingness to explore, and her ability to stay relevant through sheer willpower. I like strong-minded women, who could have possibly guessed. Nonetheless, as much as I’ve been enjoying her recent work, I have been fixated of late on Madonna’s first incarnation: the club kid captured in Desperately Seeking Susan.
Madonna: Truth or Dare catches Madonna during the transition from that club kid to her sexpot incarnation of the nineties, following her on the Blonde Ambition tour. As far as rock documentaries go, it’s almost charmingly straight forward. As Madonna delivers voice over, we watch the tour progress, with musical numbers from the concert rendered in color and the behind the scenes stuff—the bulk of the film—rendered in black and white, all the better to echo the cinema verite of A Hard Day’s Night and Don’t Look Back. She spends time with her dancers, she does battle with local censors (“What’s masturbation?” she primly asks a member of her staff trying to get her to tone down “Like a Virgin” in Toronto), and deals with the struggles of stardom.
Watching Madonna: Truth or Dare reminded me of two things—reality television and bell hooks’ 1992 essay, “Madonna: Plantation Mistress Or Soul Sister?”. The allure of all access to Madonna is the same that drew us to the first major wave of reality television, having access to people’s lives in a way previously unknown. Of course, Madonna is not a reality star framed and edited by forces outside of her control that merely want the most ratings. Madonna is the one who hired The documentary, of course, reflects how Madonna wants to be seen. There’s no scene more reflective of the halfway point between divinely bratty club kid and menacing hyper femme sexpot than Madonna in bed, surrounded by her dancers, giggling as they do a childish call and response asking for more freakishness and an X rating for the documentary.
hooks’ essay, which I read in Rock She Wrote (which I keep wanting to consult again, so I guess I should buy a copy), really takes Madonna to task for her appropriation of black and queer culture. All of it is deadly accurate and familiar like how “Vogue” is ripped from ball culture and how Madonna appropriates other cultures to shock (which ruins the “Like a Virgin” number). But I want to particularly highlight hooks’ analysis of this documentary. In it, she talks about seeing Madonna explicitly play mother to her dancers, who are mostly queer men of color. (“It’s not feeding time!” she giggles to her dancers as they strip off her top in bed.) The queer men in her life are presented as catty and broken, with Madonna and the lone straight male dancer, Oliver, throwing casual slurs at them. It was expected, but remains deeply disappointing.
Despite how much we see of Madonna in Madonna: Truth or Dare—be it topless or lying on her mother’s grave—we never really get close to her. We get to see sides of her that I’m guessing late eighties and early nineties audiences rarely saw, like her penchant Until the final musical number, “Family Affair.” Dressed in a Clockwork Orange meets roller derby goth ensemble, Madonna crows in an absurd British accent and cavorts with her dancers. She dismisses her dancers and sings, alone on stage, the final lines of the song over and over again. And that’s when I saw it: the sharp eyes underneath the hat, the workhorse muscles of her arms, the fire in her belly. The thing that draws not only me to her, but so many others. The ineffable thing that makes her a star.
I watched this film on Netflix.