For those who buy into the forgetfulness, ingratitude, and general misogyny that continue to diminish Madonna’s relevance, Strike a Pose may seem like a cheap attempt at making a buck, akin to Christopher Ciccone’s 2009 tell-all book Life with My Sister Madonna. But Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan’s documentary is a cultural record of the highest importance, as it dares to give a serious treatment to presumably frivolous and feminine matters.
This is a small, quiet piece of cinema without the fancy graphics, frenetic soundtrack, and fabricated drama that proliferate in so many documentaries. Following a “Where are they now?” premise, Gould and Zwaan reunite the surviving dancers from Madonna’s iconic Blonde Ambition tour and the film Truth or Dare, not to make them kiss and tell, but to mourn their rupture with the singer and make sense of life after drugs, fame, and HIV diagnoses.
Although AIDS has shaped all the performers’ lives, Madonna is the real ghost of Strike a Pose, mostly referred to ominously as she or her, and appearing only sparsely as a narrative device, not as a muse, a traitor, or a bitch. The film accepts Madonna for what she is—that is, a myth, not a person, whose real embodiment could never hope to coincide with the idea of her.
The filmmakers and performers show great maturity in refusing to settle scores or spill secrets, apart from a brief suggestion of Madonna’s early brush with hard drugs, which may have contributed to her distancing herself from the dancers, who ended up “choosing” intoxication over calculated long-term stardom. Although the dancers acknowledge Madonna’s function in their lives as both a blessing and a curse, they prove to be at peace with the fact that they were ultimately the only ones to blame for their fall from grace. (Token straight dancer Oliver Crumes is currently a server at a diner, while Jose Xtravaganza lives in a cramped apartment with his partner and his mother.)
In one of Strike a Pose’s most touching scenes, Jose and his mother sit side by side in their living room as she recounts her own history of frustration with life after Madonna. The woman tells of a time in the 1990s when she was very proud of her son’s rise to fame and showed him a postcard with a beautiful house on it, telling him that he would one day buy that house for her. She then promptly bemoans the fact that the years passed and Jose never bought her the house, or much of anything. Instead of subtitles, it’s Jose himself who uncannily and heartbreakingly provides live on-camera translation from Spanish to English every time his mother speaks. He’s forced to paraphrase her discontent and his supposed failures to the camera while bawling.
At a time when Madonna has become something of a cultural joke for simply aging and not producing hit records, and happens to have 75 million followers less than Kylie Jenner on Instagram, the lamenting that structures Strike a Pose will feel very familiar and cathartic to the singer’s fans, who’ve inevitably nourished a sense of loss themselves, not for what Madonna once promised, but for what she so consistently delivered at one point.