Ther documentary opens with the old quote from James Baldwin about artists who are there to disturb the peace, alongside a montage of the many controversies Madonna has sparked over her career. There is the quaint outrage it sparked during the Like a Virgin era; the video Like a Prayer with its flaming crosses, its stigmata and the hugs of a black saint; the book Sex; the New York Post dedicating its front page to an opinion piece proclaiming her the “degenerate queen of the sleazy” with the headline: “WHAT IS A WAVE!”
Of course, there was concern about the Madame X tour as well, but not Madonna’s traditional conservative genre. The album he was promoting was, at least by his standards, a business disaster – it entered the US charts at No.1, dropped 76 spots the following week, and vanished altogether the next. It has been strongly denied that ticket sales for his theatrical residency series were slow. Before Covid ended it prematurely, the tour itself was peppered with canceled dates, 16 in all, due to technical issues and injuries to the singer, which highlighted that the program may be too punitive for its own good. In the United States, there have been reports of fans booing her for arriving onstage hours late: being America, an enterprising member of the audience attempted to pursue her. When a performance at the London Palladium ran past the allotted time, the venue rolled the curtains and turned on the lights in the house, prompting the singer to shout, “Fuck you motherfucker!” Censorship! Censorship!”
Clearly there is a fascinating behind-the-scenes documentary to be made on the Madame X tour, and the larger question of not only sustaining a career for 39 years, but making it the absolute center of pop: a space. inconstant and constantly changing. this has changed more drastically than ever in recent years thanks to the advent of streaming. But Madame X movie isn’t it: just a concert movie, the closest to Madonna’s 1991 Truth or Dare documentary is when you see a brief clip of Truth or Dare between songs.
It’s shot beautifully – so beautifully, in fact, that you wonder how they filmed it without interfering with the enjoyment of the live audience – and at times subjected to a little update: the footage from the protests shown at the show. Gun Control’s openings now include those brought on by the murder of George Floyd, who was killed a few months after the Madame X tour ended. This cannot capture the sense of opportunity that accompanied the shows – the excitement that a star Madonna’s stature was playing in venues smaller than stadiums – but it allows the viewer to marvel at the sheer optimism of her set. Few artists with a catalog so rich in beloved and infallible anthems would choose to perform 11 songs from their new album and only seven old hits.
The staging is impressive and deliberately arty. It’s beautifully choreographed – the close-ups on Madonna herself reveal a woman who works really, really hard and, judging by the occasional grimace, pushing herself through considerable pain – and the appearance of the Orquestra Batukadeiras entirely. Cape Verdean feminine is an unfettered delight. But without the buzz of being there in person to accompany you, there are times when the documentary drags on.
Oddly enough, it was filmed in Lisbon, which is both the singer’s hometown and one of the few places on Earth where Madonna performed a succession of fado-inspired songs with lyrics in Portuguese – an entire section of the show was devoted to these – is guaranteed to go down as well as Madonna singing, say, Hung Up or Into The Groove. You find yourself admiring Madonna’s desire to focus on art and recast her music as expressly political, all the while wondering if Madame X’s songs are really good enough to deserve so much attention.