Someone once described Queen Victoria as a steel fist in a velvet glove; today's reigning queen of anti-Victorianism, Madonna, might be called a steel fist in a steel glove -- and a bustier.
The revealing, amusing and only occasionally hagiographic documentary "Madonna: Truth or Dare," opening today, shows us a triumph of the will. The woman is a mini-Terminator, plowing ahead though rain, sleet and ego, through sex and love, through friendship, politics and betrayal -- always with an eye out for what she wants and the supreme confidence that what she wants is what counts.
The movie takes us where we secretly long to go: to the center of celebrity culture. Madonna's life, chronicled during the course of her world-wide Blonde Ambition tour last year, is an ordeal by microphone and camera: Everywhere she goes, she's at the center of the cone of attention. The lenses bob at her like a fleet of sharks; you feel the want in the air like a palpable, combustible vapor. You wait for it to explode.
Yet Madonna herself, far from being diminished by the experience, appears to flourish in it. In one acerbic exchange with lover Warren Beatty, with whom her relationship appears to be disintegrating, he professes patrician astonishment that she is allowing herself to be filmed during a throat exam. He goes on to point out that for her there is no life without the camera on. She has no response and the director, Alek Keshishian, is brave enough to let the sequence stand even though it does not reflect well on his producer and employer, who happens to be none other than his star.
The design of the film is unique: Celeb culture, backstage politics, the nurturing of friendships -- these are all covered in the vernacular of "realism" through grainy, arty black-and-white cinema-verite techniques. When Keshishian switches to Madonna's performances, the film explodes into glossy color and high-tech video techniques, creating concert footage as convincing, almost, as being there. But I wish Keshishian had cut less frequently when Madonna is dancing; she's not a great dancer, technically, but she has such dynamic charisma that when she moves, you can't look away. You want to see the moves from start to finish, not cut up by dazzling editing technique. You want to see Madonna dance, not the movie.
Some of the backstage stuff is wonderful, particularly as the star does an ace bitch-number on Kevin Costner, just at the moment when Costner's bubble of sanctimony appears to be bursting. And the movie provides insights into the spatting that is the subtext of show-biz culture. A crisis develops when the five gay dancers keep picking on the only straight one; feelings need soothing and Madonna, her mother-hen instincts aroused, goes to his rescue.
But "Truth or Dare" begins to wear thin in its last quarter where, perhaps worried that she has not exposed enough, Madonna begins to preen for the camera in ways that feel consciously planned to be "provocative." The magic intimacy between camera and subject has vanished, replaced by an awkward awareness. At one point, she climbs into bed with her whole retinue of dancers in a parody of group sex; in another, she performs an act of oral sex on an Evian bottle. Revelation has become vanity has become narcissism; and narcissism, finally, is boredom.
'Madonna: Truth or Dare'
Directed by Alek Keshishian.
Released by Miramax.