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Truth or Dare: Madonna's big lie

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To read the awestruck mainstream press on the subject of the Madonna tour documentary Truth or Dare--breathless features, interviews, and reviews marveling at the movie's unparalleled frankness--you wouldn't suspect that the film is actually the most baldly manipulative and scarily dishonest piece of propaganda to be recorded on celluloid since at least the Reagan campaign's "Morning in America" commercials and possibly since Triumph of the Will. Far from being a first-of-its-kind backstage look at the rock-star psyche, the film has about half a dozen precedents, notably D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back on Dylan, Robert Frank's Cocksucker Blues on the Rolling Stones, and, more recently, Sting's Bring on the Night. Like Truth or Dare, all three of these were produced under the real or de facto aegis of their stars, and at least one ran into trouble because of it.

But the earlier films were made in much different, less audacious and not quite as cynical times; while all are suspicious, each has moments of insight. While, for instance, Dylan manager Albert Grossman, who was executive producer of Pennebaker's film, might have kept a wary eye on anything that could have injured his client, he certainly didn't view the film as a promotional vehicle, nor did its star; while Dylan isn't unaware of the camera, certain scenes--Dylan eviscerating interviewers, being mean to Joan Baez, condescending to Donovan--are so raw (and so ultimately unattractive) that they couldn't have been planned. The Frank film on the Stones, stupidly suppressed by the band, is more impressionistic and as a consequence less personal, but it's still a fluid and up-front analysis (which is why the film isn't in general circulation) of what was perhaps rock 'n' roll's last extended moment of unself-consciousness--the Stones' grand American tour of 1972. And even the largely useless Sting movie--so megalomaniacal that it even includes footage of Sting's child being born, something I hope the kid never forgives him for--fairly graphically explores the unbalanced dynamic between the star and his hired musical guns. Of course, again, we see this because Sting is allowing us to; but far from contributing to a crafted persona, such scenes simply reveal Sting's uncontrolled ego: he's so sure of his own attractiveness that he thinks the negative scenes just add a patina to his image. (Normal humans, by contrast, merely see in them confirmation of what we expected--that Sting is an asshole.)

In other words, what appears in each of these films, despite the control of their stars, is something--anything--that the artists might not have volunteered on their own, tidbits that the filmmakers could point to and say, "Here, right here: here is something honest, something real, something true."

Truth or Dare does not have a moment like that. Paid for by Madonna, who gets executive producer credit, and directed by a 26-year-old video director, Alek Keshishian, the film is not only not a singular document, it is not even a legitimate example of what it is supposed to be a unique example of. Far from candid, the film is actually carefully contrived, its star so obsessively in control that you wish someone had made an actual documentary ("The Making of Truth or Dare") that laid bare the manipulations. To paraphrase Mary McCarthy on Lillian Hellman, not one scene, not one moment of the film is true. Every frame is a lie, including the credits and the trailer.

Truth or Dare's "plot" follows Madonna, two backup singers, a phalanx of dancers, and various other courtiers from Japan, where the film begins, through America and into Europe. The episodic nature of the backstage scenes and the anonymity of the live-show venues make it difficult to differentiate between cities, so transitions are accomplished by means of scripted voice-overs from Madonna. ("When we got to Europe there was an overwhelming sense of relief.") The film's main stylistic conceit is putting the onstage sequences in color and the "real" parts in black and white--perhaps the hoariest of all MTV cliches, but Keshishian does it up aggressively, using absurdly grainy black-and-white film. (The film and erratic lighting give some of the black-and-white interviews the look of some horror movie by Georges Franju.)

The movie starts with a hugely contrived scene in which Madonna slowly picks up the remnants of a party in her hotel room and then falls into bed. I doubt Madonna picks up after herself, much less anybody else, or that she goes to bed without taking off her makeup, going to the bathroom, or brushing her teeth. It's like a scene out of a Noel Coward play, and it establishes from the beginning that this isn't documentary, it's docudrama. And Keshishian does it well: when Madonna complains that her monitors are going out onstage, he treats the sound track so we can get a sense of what she's going through. Audience noise is routinely faked as well. Now, this is no small thing: The film is a provocatively titled tour documentary. The entire premise of the genre, even when commissioned, is that these films give a sense of what it's like to be on tour. Sure most of them are sanitized, but until now they haven't generally been completely fictionalized.

Truth or Dare's biggest outrage is its live sequences, many of which are patently staged or rerecorded. (The film implies that they're filmed on sequential nights.) There's an almost complete absence of establishing shots of either the venues or the audience. (Fans seem to be extraneous to Madonna's notion of a tour.) Except for one recurring shot--taken by a camera sweeping over the audience about 50 feet out--there is never any perspective on the star from anywhere besides the very front and sides of the stage. There's not a single scene showing what it was like to see the concert from the 100th row, or from the back of the auditorium--just another example of the irony of this movie's having "truth" in the title. So contemptuous are the star and director of the audience that cheers and swelling screams are routinely added, often clumsily: it's particularly embarrassing when the sound track tells us the crowd is roaring and we can see the audience practically sitting on their hands.

The sound is suspect all the way through. Either Keshishian has created the most scrupulously clean sound track in film history, or most of the songs are synched. On a couple of numbers, notably "Live to Tell," the sound quality drops and you can hear the vocals respond to Madonna's movement. Elsewhere, you can only marvel at her ability to sing without her often strenuous dance steps affecting her voice. Even the one song that was unquestionably filmed in front of an audience, "Holiday" (you get shots of the audience and you can see the cameras moving around on the sidelines), seems to have had a rerecorded vocal track added.

Madonna and Keshishian, MTV creations both, just couldn't countenance normal live footage in the film: they had to create what are in effect new videos for the songs, and dress the footage up with slow motion, jagged cuts, and fast editing. But it seems that once they decided to do that they found out how difficult it is to get usable material from actual live filming. (It is, after all, Keshishian's first real movie.) The results are far too technically complex to have been filmed live. "Oh Father," for example, ends with a camera circling around the singer--if it had been filmed onstage the elaborate camera crew spinning around Madonna would have completely disrupted the song's final dramatic moments for the audience.

What I don't understand is why this movie exists. If Madonna went on tour to make the movie, she could have just as easily stayed home. And if it was an afterthought--that is, if the tour was scheduled and then Madonna said, Hey, let's film this puppy--why didn't they actually do it?

I realize it's the 90s. I understand that we live in a postmodern age, where much of what is interesting in all sorts of art genres involves the destruction and bulldozing (either figuratively or literally) of cherished aesthetic preconceptions and philosophical foundations. In this exhilarating climate new and varied undergrounds emerge, pastiche as their password; futuristic technologies challenge in every medium; and an ever more canny establishment dreams up ever more extravagant and efficient ways to part people from their money. These are, like it or not, the cornerstones of our age.

But while Madonna is a part, and even a symbol, of a lot of this, there's a difference between manipulating images and genres and using big lies to further your career. The movie's title, the breathless voice-overs by Madonna, a whole series of scenes where the alleged prying of the camera becomes an issue--all of these are added to disguise the fact that so much of the movie is sheer propaganda. Its shameless image making posits Madonna as a beneficent Supermama to her entourage ("I started feeling like a mother to them," she tells us in a voice-over), kind and gentle whenever possible but steely strong when need be. Here's Madonna ordering around her manager, herding her dancers like sheep, bravely allowing the cameras backstage, into her dressing room, into her bedroom. Here she flashes her tits for the camera, talks dirty with friends, gets sad at her mother's grave, deals with her mope brother, skillfully handles imprecating former friends, celebrities, family.

About three-and-a-half minutes into the film you realize how terribly unfairly she's stacked the deck. Whatever you think of her, Madonna's a veteran video star with a well-developed ability to use a camera as a blunt instrument. A good or honest director would see that, and take steps to compensate for it, but Keshishian is a collaborator, not a journalist. With a child's self-absorption, Madonna thinks everything she says or does is endlessly fascinating. ("She will answer any question because she is genuinely interested in her own reply," says Carrie Fisher in the introduction to a recent Rolling Stone interview. This is not an attractive quality.) A lot of this approaches the infantile--Madonna opening her mouth extra wide for throat spray, proudly reciting a poem about farting, slurping her soup extra loud. As in her early videos, Madonna unapologetically fastens her eye on the camera lens: In the videos, she's communicating come-hither sexuality (such imaging is of course typical in the sexist world of rock videos, but we're supposed to think it's OK for Madonna to do it because she's "in control"). In the film, she uses her command of the form to make sure the balance of power never shifts. In the much-discussed scene involving Kevin Costner, when he comes backstage, polite and unpretentious, and exchanges a few banal words with the star, she gets catty, he waves bye, and she whirls away and feigns barfing. You'd think that he'd asked her on a date or something. But no--they'd both been participating in the usual big-star backstage scene, and Madonna, on her home turf, with her camera going, takes advantage of the situation.

Similar tactics humiliate her father, a childhood friend, and her brother. The last, whom we've already learned has been in alcoholic rehab, is pinned mercilessly to a couch by Keshishian's camera; predictably, he spouts cliches about his relationship to his sister. A few scenes later, Madonna, demonstrating her ease with the same medium, neatly eviscerates him: she whispers to a bodyguard how her brother should be handled if he shows up backstage after the show. Why does she whisper? The camera lights are blinding, and a microphone boom is hanging over her head! She whispers to assist in the movie's fabrications, helping to make something seem candid and private when it really--by intention--isn't.

Such manipulations become most reprehensible in the movie's tasteless trip to the grave of her mother. The real story about the grave scene remains muddy: Keshishian has said in interviews that he miked the site without Madonna's knowing it, and that the cameras were "unobtrusive"--the implication presumably being either that (a) Madonna might not have noticed them, or (b) because they were unobtrusive Madonna would have been more sincere. In the event, Madonna, who has no shame, plays to the cameras and the mikes, lolling on the grass in a fetching black outfit and attempting to add a philosophical vein to her remarks: "I wonder what she looks like now, just a bunch of dust." I'm not sure I understand the motivation behind wanting to be filmed at one's mother's grave. It seems to me that you're either at peace with a dead relative or friend, or you're not. If the former, you realize how utterly plastic posing at a grave is; if you're not, you'd only use such a scene to mask your true feelings. But there's a third possibility as well: your mother died when you were five, you have a top-dollar shrink to work out your feelings with, and you're cynical enough to put a fake grave scene in your movie.

Madonna is a genuinely freakish figure in popular music. While unquestionably a "pop" star, she has never struck me as being a genuine "rock" artist, having created somewhat less than a half dozen genuine "rock" songs, most of these very recent ("Like a Prayer," "Get It Together," possibly "Justify My Love"). The vast majority of her oeuvre comes out of a warmed-over disco idiom, with occasional side trips into 70s balladry and Broadway-musical kitsch. With the exception of a couple of blithe early hits from her first and best album ("Holiday" and "Borderline"), her songs date ferociously; listening to her greatest-hits album, The Immaculate Collection, is correspondingly painful. Most of her noted songs ("Like a Virgin," "Material Girl"), she didn't write; the others give her cowriter credit. (The most important of her collaborators is Patrick Leonard, who cowrote "Like a Prayer," "Cherish," and "Live to Tell" and coproduced both Like a Prayer and True Blue, Madonna's two most successful albums. In the Carrie Fisher interview, Madonna calls him "this guy I write music with.") As a dancer Madonna's an OK singer. Her ensemble dance numbers are just laughable: it's the usual spins, bumps, and grinds, tarted up a little for modern audiences. In the film Madonna makes fun of Joey Heatherton, but she's carrying on the same bankrupt tradition. (Some of my favorite Madonna moments, in the videos and the movie, are when she's dancing without choreography. She always looks like she's about to break into what Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally called "the white boy's overbite.")

While certain critics praise certain of her singles, no serious student of Madonna makes similar claims for her overwrought and overproduced albums. What Madonna is celebrated for is two things: her control of her image, and her unconventionality. The first is indisputable, Truth or Dare itself being the latest example, and more power to her.

But the unconventionality part is puzzling. What seems so overlooked in the reams of paper exhausted on her is how fabulously conventional her beliefs are. Her controversies are almost always paper tigers. Take the problems that surrounded "Like a Prayer," her one unquestionably first-rate performance on record. Madonna brandishes a crucifix and a little Jesus imagery and she gets the Catholic Church all over her. This qualifies neither as serious commentary nor as artistic risk taking: even Catholics don't care what the Catholic Church thinks anymore. It's like poking a stick at a dog. (As with Martin Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ, it's not that Like a Prayer is sacrilegious but that it's not sacrilegious enough.) Here as elsewhere, Madonna's just playing to the cheap seats.

It's just this sort of epater les bourgeois banality that's got Truth or Dare its headlines. Madonna says "dick" a lot and we're supposed to blanch. This may shock the guys at the Des Moines Rotary, but a lot of women talk that way in 1991, including some of their daughters. Madonna talks dirty with Sandra Bernhard (getting off a pretty funny remark about incest, I have to admit), gives head to a bottle, and cavorts in bed with her dancers. (All of these scenes, incidentally, are staged in one way or another.) They're in the film not to tell us anything about the star but to shock us: she wears things like her sex talk and her elaborately casual relations with her gay dancers like a badge. This isn't modern or daring--it's just puerile bohemianism.

She resorts to shock because she doesn't have anything else to say. Madonna as a lyricist is a great dancer. What meanings you can derive from even her most famous songs are invariably mundane. In the video of "Material Girl" (a rewrite of "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend"), what could have been a ferocious commentary on the differences between Marilyn Monroe and our Madonna is diluted and finally undermined by a clumsy story line that sees the singer ride off in Keith Carradine's jalopy at song's end. Y'see, she really wasn't a "material girl" after all.

"Like a Prayer," whose bangles-and-bare-midriff iconography on video and album hark back to the Madonna phase captured in Desperately Seeking Susan, was a splendidly produced and arranged single that was spoiled on video by Madonna's attempts to show how much she really truly appreciates the musical contributions of black people. The video's melodramatic story line has her grapple with her conscience and then decide that, yes, she really must go and tell the police that a black man has been unjustly accused of rape.

Similarly, one of her most controversial songs was 1987's "Papa Don't Preach." Another song she didn't write, it's the story of a girl who gets pregnant and says she's really in love with the guy and wants to get married. Teenage true love--now there's some cutting-edge commentary on an original subject. (The song's subtext--that she's doing it defiantly, against societal pressures in favor of abortion--is simply bizarre.)

It's nothing new to say that Madonna's greatest success is at manipulation. As the years go by, however, the manipulation seems so farfetched. Neither getting your newest video banned by MTV nor having the resulting news be the lead story in USA Today is an artistic achievement. "Like a Virgin," "Papa Don't Preach," and "Like a Prayer" are not provocative songs. Truth or Dare is neither daring nor truthful. The movie is not about Madonna--it's about "not Madonna," for there's no real Madonna in the entire movie.

The real Madonna's a mess. So unsure of her image that she can't bear to let it out of her control for a second. So uncomfortable with her feelings for her long-dead mother that she takes a camera crew to her grave to prevent her from being alone with her thoughts for more than a moment. So insecure about her status as one of the most famous people in the world that she strains to demonstrate her control over those over whom she unquestionably has complete control--her crew, her friends, her family. In Truth or Dare you can see something like the real Madonna only once or twice, during the tour's nightly "prayer circle," in which the whole gang holds hands, bows heads, and listens to Madonna. A brief apostrophe to God gives way to the star's problems, sent out to her doting dancers and entourage, the cameras, and from there on out to her loyal fans all over the world. It's arguably a moment of religiosity. "When you call my name," sings Madonna, "It's like a little prayer." They're praying to her.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tony Griff.

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