Twenty-five years after Madonna: Truth or Dare’s original theatrical run, its ostensible subject—Madonna’s worldwide Blond Ambition tour—is now one of its least interesting aspects. It was easy to recognize the tour, which premiered during the waning days of Tipper Gore’s war against the music industry, as a deliberate provocation, a salacious mix of Catholic imagery and overt sexuality, with a few Art Deco trimmings thrown in for good measure. Outfitted for much of the show in an iconic cone-bra corset designed by Jean Paul Gaultier, Madonna blared a commanding sexual power from the stage, performing muscular choreography that included crotch-grabbing, erotic flexions on her scantily clad male dancers, and, in the show’s most controversial moment, simulated masturbation. The idea of a female artist performing such defiantly sexual material proved so threatening to local authorities in Toronto and Rome that they threatened to shut down the show.
If the concert may not seem shocking to contemporary audiences used to strong, unapologetically sexual female performers, that’s because Madonna paved the way for so many singers interested in embracing their sexuality through their music. Still novel, though, is the sheer ambition and syncretic aesthetic of the tour, which drew its inspiration from Metropolis, hip-hop, S&M, and A Clockwork Orange, among other sources. In the context of the film, these performance excerpts, shot in richly hued color 35mm, exist not just for their own sake, but operate in dialogue with the film’s backstage scenes.
In essence, Truth or Dare is less of a concert film than an elaborately constructed exegesis on pop mythmaking and the construction of identity. One part of Madonna’s genius has consistently been the creation (and reinvention) of her persona. Rather than purporting to give an unvarnished look at the woman beneath the bustier, the Alek Keshishian film calls into question the very idea of a consistent identity. Filmed in high-contrast black-and-white 16mm, the backstage scenes intentionally evoke the vérité style of D.A. Pennebaker’s Bob Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back, but here the aesthetic is an ironic appropriation of the idea of observational cinema.
Madonna’s decision to allow cameras to follow her around constantly during her tour wasn’t about capturing some unguarded moments, but rather the opposite. The camera offers an omnipresent excuse for performance, an opportunity to turn every interaction, no matter how dull or personal, into a work of art. As Warren Beatty, Madonna’s then-boyfriend, at one point famously observes: “She doesn’t want to live off camera, much less talk. There’s nothing to say off camera. Why would you say something if it’s off camera? What point is there existing?” Even in ostensibly private moments, Madonna cleverly plays to the camera, switching between a handful of personae, each incarnation amplified by hair, makeup, and costume: Marilyn Monroe for coquettish charm; Marie Antoinette for an air of luxurious decadence; brassy, streetwise Italian girl to suggest her roots.
Truth or Dare offers some particularly succulent red meat for Freudians, including Madonna’s patronizing descriptions of herself as the “mother” to her dance crew. Twenty-five years on, the film offers the opportunity to re-enter an emerging intellectual milieu, one that emphasized the centrality of performance to our identities, particularly our expressions of gender. Released a year after Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble and Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae, True or Dare is marinated in many of the same ideas surrounding gender, power, sexuality, and performance. (Paglia, who recognized in Madonna a fellow provocateur, even lauded her as “the future of feminism” in the pages of The New York Times.)
Truth or Dare aligns these ideas with a focus on gay rights. This film may very well have been the first time many Madonna fans saw two men kissing. At one point, several of her dancers attend a gay pride parade in New York City, which is interspersed with footage of Oliver Crumes, the only straight male dancer in Madonna’s troupe, expressing his discomfort around gay men. The scene recognizes the ubiquity of homophobia while simultaneously centering the fight against it. And in one of the film’s most poignant moments, Madonna tears up as she delivers a pre-show prayer in honor of Keith Haring, who died of AIDS in 1990. The singer appears caught in a rare candid moment, choking up over the untimely death of a friend, but the strength of the film’s detailed attention to the performative aspects of identity is such that one wonders if even this moment of seemingly unvarnished emotion is just another act. As Paglia wrote, “Madonna says we are nothing but masks.”