Music documentary

‘Madonna: Truth or Dare’ is still the ultimate pop music documentary

She does not have to clean the hotel room. You don’t usually spend time in luxury French hotel suites like this unless you’re rich and mega-famous, and when you get that rich and mega-famous, you’ve got plenty of people to clean up your mess. But the woman in the bathrobe is still picking up the champagne flutes, pushing a tray of ice buckets into a corner, quietly tidying up the aftermath of a party. She talks about fear and anxiety and how last week she was convinced she was having a nervous breakdown in Spain. The lights go out, she rests her weary head and the camera lingers on her, capturing what appears to be an extremely vulnerable moment.

It’s August 1990. Instagram won’t be invented for 20 years, and TMZ won’t crumble to Bethlehem for 15 years. Twitter isn’t even a gleam in Jack Dorsey’s eye yet. In this age of celebrity culture at the end of the Mesozoic, the preservation of a famous person’s image is still outsourced, publicity is still a commodity, and privacy is still a currency. But this woman, a real pop star who lets herself be filmed as she opens up directly to the camera, throws empty Heineken bottles and sleeps? Bitch, it’s Madonna. And as was the case with everything else, the singer/dancer/cultural icon had a well-groomed hand, she blithely rewrites the rules of the game in real time.

A tour chronicle, time capsule and template, Madonna: truth or dare announced itself as something different when it premiered on May 10, 1991. What began as an idea to shoot a few of his Blonde Ambition shows ended up becoming the template for injecting performative candor into the pop music documentaries – it’s not. pull back the curtain on backstage tantrums, blood-sweat-tears hard work, or bitchy celebrity encounters as much as integrating them into the spectacle you see on stage. It’s all a great Madonna drama-drama. And yet, you still feel like you’re getting a portrait of an artist as a control freak who feels uniquely raw, semi-filtered, off-book if not off-camera. It’s pop stardom as truth provocation. They should have called her Truth *and* Dare.

The backstory has now become the story of Her Madge-esty: after seeing filmmaker Alex Keshishian’s Harvard thesis (a pop version of The Wuthering Heights), Madonna asks for a meeting. They succeeded. He is hired to shoot concert footage and some behind-the-scenes information for a possible special on the upcoming tour, and is soon taken to Japan. There, he begins interviewing the show’s dancers, a hodgepodge of European, Asian, Hispanic, and African-American men who are as integral to the show as the musicians. Because he can only corner them to talk the morning after they return from a night of partying after the performance, Keshishian conducts most of their interviews in bed.

He realizes that he gets good things here. Ditto backstage and after-hours exchanges. After showing Madonna some of what he shot, he launches a pivot into something bigger, broader, more intimate than a concert film. She agrees and despite her management’s protests, allows her and her crew to run the cameras longer after the house lights come back on. You want to film Madonna reciting fart poems to her makeup artists, and tearing up some new asshole stage managers on faulty monitors, and having an awkward exchange with her dad after he sees her rub against a bed on stage? Here’s your all-access pass, Alex.

TRUTH OR DARE, Madonna, 1991

©Miramax/Everett Collection

The end result remains a tantalizing mix of Madonna performance footage and after-dark shenanigans, steely professionalism, and personal NSFW angst. It’s Madonna we tend to think of when we think of her: the post-bracelet and lace blonde bombshell, all in tendons and Gaultier corsets. (We hold the Cabaret look droog too. ) But 30 years later, it plays practically like a greatest hits album of private moments turned into pop culture touchstones: The Water Bottle. Kevin Costner calls the show “neat.” Toronto cops turned “Like a Virgin” into a First Amendment Rubicon. The homosexual kiss. Openly flirting with Antonio Banderas. (The real hero of this doc? The infinitely tolerant wife of Antonio Banderas.) The montage of Madonna having fun with her dancers between the sheets. The Pride Parade. The chuckle over a story involving an affair with the troupe’s only self-identified heterosexual dancer. Warren Freakin’ Beatty.

Everyone remembers Beatty’s big knockout – “She doesn’t want to live off camera, let alone talk…. Why say something if it’s offscreen? How does it exist? — but his real highlight arguably comes before that, when he watches the backstage circus blast into Madonna’s dressing room. As he watches her remove her makeup, he silently stands behind, hands on her shoulders. He looks straight into the camera and by extension, the team filming the entire meeting. And then he smiles and, with perfect timing for a movie star, shakes his head. He’s been a famous man for decades, and he doesn’t understand why anyone would want his most mundane or messy exchanges captured for an audience. Madonna doesn’t understand why you would not give it to the public. Shouldn’t a peek behind the curtain be an advantage you control?

This is how notoriety would be managed and managed in the 21st century, a kind of direct exchange between fan and artist. Mysticism would be replaced by relatability, and Truth or Dare turns all the fame into a balancing act. Madonna – she’s just like you guys. She gets angry and depressed and sometimes has a night off. And also, wouldn’t you like to hang out with her and have those fabulous once-in-a-lifetime experiences reserved for stratospheric celebrities too?

Truth or Dare remains groundbreaking in many ways, from its bet on showcasing what happens when people stop being nice and start getting real, to its depiction of gay life – a decade after AIDS began to decimate the community, nearly a decade before will and grace started selling it to the general public. It’s how Madonna writes her own tale of warts and everything here that makes this the most influential musical documentary since Dylan’s. Do not turn around, Nevertheless. Everyone from Beyoncé to Bieber to Billie Eilish would attempt to replicate her mix of brutal honesty behind the scenes and showmanship in the big tents. You don’t get Queen Bey admitting she’s not safe while inches from a camcorder or a depressed Katy Perry sobbing before a show without Madge showing them how it’s done. ‘is made.

The difference is that few of today’s pop stars have the confidence or courage to trust anyone outside of their team to capture truth that is unverified or micromanaged to death. After a 25th anniversary screening at the Museum of Modern Art (which Madonna herself reportedly crushed for a brief second), Keshishian admitted he’d been approached over the years by many big-name musicians who claimed to want the full Truth or Dare treatment. He would tour for a week with carte blanche, he says, and then put together what he had. “‘Well, we don’t want you to use this gone, and I don’t want you to show me doing this.‘I would say to [their] direction, ‘There is no movie here.’

There are too many layers to go through now, Keshishian said. With Truth or Dare, he basically needed Madonna’s approval, and that was it. What she said is what they did, stressed Liz Rosenberg and Freddy DeMann. And what she wanted was something close to a beautifully shot version of the ugly truth, 24 frames per second. She got it, or at the very least, one hell of a legend to print. Madonna has always enjoyed taking risks and pushing boundaries. This documentary was a bet which, 30 years later, is still paying off.