Whatever you think of this hot-to-shock documentary, which tracks Madonna on and off the stage during her 1990 Blond Ambition World Tour, don’t call it “neat.” That’s the word Kevin Costner uses when complimenting Madonna backstage in L.A. Hearing such a candy-assed adjective for the two-hour assault of energy and hightech flash that is her act sends the diva into jerk alert. In a pure Madonna moment, she sticks two fingers down her throat and pretends to barf. Costner slinks out of her dressing room, exposed as an abject dweeb in the ruthless glare of her pop-icon hipness. The Dances With Wolves Oscar winner would have been better off chatting up the star in Lakota.
We already knew Madonna had attitude. What gives freshness and snap to Truth or Dare is what the film uncovers about the origin of that attitude and the gargantuan ambition that fuels it. Shrewdly directed by Alek Keshishian, a Harvard alumnus noted for his video work with Bobby Brown, Edie Brickell and Elton John, the film alternates glitzy concert footage shot in color with grittier personal material shot in black and white. The symbolism may be heavy-handed but the movie is not. It’s the most revealing and outrageously funny piece of pop demythologizing since D.A. Pennebaker blew the hype off Bob Dylan’s 1965 English concert tour in Don’t Look Back.
Madonna gave Keshishian near-total access to her inner sanctum during the four months of the tour. The movie begins in Tokyo with Madonna entertaining a stadium audience in a downpour. The stage footage is striking but can’t match the raw charge of a live performance. And by now, familiarity has blunted the edge of Madonna’s crotch-grabbing bit. What does come through is the star’s unnerving stamina. Holding hands with her staff before each concert, Madonna prays for the strength to bring off her behemoth of a show. You may not leave Truth or Dare loving Madonna, but you’ll respect her as a force of nature.
During a sound check that’s going badly, Madonna barks for an engineer. “I’m waiting,” she says, like Salome demanding the head of John the Baptist. After one show she harangues her manager for letting those “so distracting and depressing” industry types sit with their arms folded in the front rows. For fun she plays the game of truth or dare with her entourage, at one point going down on a bottle to show how she gives a blow job.
Madonna’s need to shock often causes her problems. Warren Beatty, Madonna’s privacy-driven Dick Tracy costar — and lover at the time — berates her for the “insanity” of making her life a public spectacle. A woman friend from her high-school days — who doesn’t share Madonna’s memory of their “finger fucking” — shows up for a reunion only to get a polite brushoff. “You little shit,” says the woman, as the star blithely exits.
But much is also made of the tyrant’s soft side. She plays mother confessor to her seven male dancers, most of whom are new to the road and celebrity, by arranging family reunions and soothing fragile egos. She also gets confused, frightened and stressed out. Alone in her hotel room, juggling phones in a bathrobe and no makeup, Madonna looks exhausted. But she’s not complaining. This is her fantasy, and she’s living it to the hilt.
There are times when the movie snags on mawkfshness, as when Madonna visits the grave of her mother or phones her conservative Catholic father to coax him to her hometown concert in Detroit, despite his dread of her stage antics with crucifixes. Madonna’s lost-lamb routine doesn’t play as well as the scenes that show her running her career the way Iacocca runs Chrysler. She’s not going to change her act for her father any more than she did for the censors in Toronto and Rome. What they see as obscene or sacrilegious she views as “artistic expression.” Madonna’s talent is less God-given than Madonna-made. She’s exercised her body into pinup shape, toughened her vocal chords and brought precision to her dancing. And she’s proud of her handiwork. Immodesty becomes her.
So does self-mockery. For the first time on film, the bitch goddess descends from her pedestal to laugh at her narcissism. She bares her nipples and her soul. She wants to be liked. Is this vulnerable Madonna the real thing or a ploy to ingratiate herself with film audiences who’ve found her chilly and strident? You be the judge. But there’s no denying that Truth or Dare is at its raunchy best when Madonna is kicking ass instead of kissing it.