- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
In our ongoing series, we revisit some of our favorite music movies—from artist docs and concert films to biopics and fictional fantasies—that are available to stream or rent digitally. Spoilers ahead.
Drag princess Venus Xtravaganza’s dream was to be a spoiled, rich white girl. “They get what they want whenever they want it, and they don’t have to really struggle with finances,” she explained in Paris Is Burning, Jennie Livingston’s classic 1990 documentary on New York City’s underground ballroom scene. Madonna, a spoiled, rich white girl, seemed to envy Venus’ transgressive world—a place where drag queens with limited budgets competitively mimicked the high fashion of celebrities, immersing themselves in the optics of grandeur without real access to it. Vogue ball culture, which first found its roots in Harlem among Black and Latinx queer communities, seemed to project the singer’s own dream: Fame as fantasy, rather than reality.
Madonna was looking for inspiration for 1990’s Blond Ambition Tour when she saw two vogue dancers in a New York club. She borrowed a bit of their world for “Vogue,” one of her biggest hits, then took those same dancers on tour and showered them with affection, as captured in Alek Keshishian’s 1991 documentary Truth or Dare. The underground ballroom scene and mainstream commercial culture have formed a symbiotic relationship in the decades following the film (see: RuPaul’s Drag Race). But in the immediate years, Madonna reaped the rewards of that fantasy, while the keepers of the culture she pilfered were left with the reality. Three of the Blond Ambition dancers sued the singer, unhappy with their representation in the film and in one case, the fact that it outed them to the world without their permission. Meanwhile, “Vogue” went to No. 1 in dozens of countries, the tour reportedly grossed $62 million, and Truth or Dare became the highest-grossing documentary of all time up to that point.
Since the doc’s release, critics have mainly concerned themselves with questions over its authenticity—is Truth or Dare really Madonna’s truth, or merely an attempt to champion herself?—as well as the singer’s co-option of Black and Latinx queer culture. While this might be enough for some to tune out, for others, the moral complexity and glaring imperfections punctuating Truth or Dare are what make the film so compelling. That, and Madonna’s enormous, boorish presence. She’s a pop superstar who appeals to our rebellious, histrionic, adolescent side. She’s a diva who can get away with it all. She’s the most extravagantly spoiled, rich white girl who ever lived.
Madonna uses Truth or Dare to self-mythologize, much to the annoyance of then-boyfriend Warren Beatty. With the camera’s light constantly blinking red, he snidely remarks: “Why would you say something if it’s off-camera? What point is there existing?” From early on, the singer is forceful in her attempt to be seen as a maternal figure. She tells Keshishian about her compulsion to surround herself with emotionally stunted individuals who need mothering. It fulfills her own instinct to be mothered, she offers, something she’s keened for since the loss of her mother to cancer when she was five years old.
But Madonna is selectively maternal, rarely extending her softheartedness to the women who surround her. While she cuddles up in bed with her male dancers, sympathizes with their pasts, tries to improve their futures, she expresses more disdain than fondness for her female troupe. She’s a one-cause woman. “Shut the fuck up,” she shouts when her backing singers try to emulate Belinda Carlisle. When Keshishian arranges for a childhood friend to visit, Madonna seems in a hurry to get away; the friend, on the other hand, is in total awe, asking the pop star to be her unborn child’s godmother. At one point, Madonna tells her makeup artist Sharon Gault that she reminds her of a girl she bullied at school. Later on in Truth or Dare, when Gault reveals to the team that she’d been drugged and sexually assaulted the night before, Madonna laughs. “All I can think is that she was on tour with me, she’s staying at the Ritz Carlton, and those guys got it in their minds that they were gonna fuck with her,” the singer unhelpfully offers. Horrifyingly, the issue isn’t addressed again on camera.
For what should have been a tour documentary, little attention is paid to the world outside of Madonna’s dressing and hotel rooms. While Technicolor performances break up the cinéma vérité-style peek behind the scenes, shots of the audience are seldom shown. Keshishian was so beguiled by the backstage life that he persuaded his subject to do a film focusing on that—a decision that undoubtedly resulted in the movie’s monumental success. In Truth or Dare, Madonna fascinates less when a crowd of thousands is her audience, and far more when a camera allows her to perform intimacy to an imagined audience. If Keshishian hadn’t shifted the focus away from a traditional concert film, we may never have been treated to the film’s most iconic scene. During a game of truth or dare with her cadre, Madonna is asked to show her blowjob technique. She grips a glass bottle like a sceptre and twirls it around inside the walls of her cheeks, pushing it down beyond her tonsils, unfazed and ungagged. Sex isn’t a competition, but if it was, Madonna would have won a long time ago.
A 32-year-old teenager, the singer seemed to enjoy bastardizing and sexifying her Catholic upbringing more than ever on the Blond Ambition Tour. Wearing underwear as outerwear, she offered a superficial version of sex—where lust becomes a surface, rather than something plumbed from the depths of desire. With plastic-coned tits long and sharp enough to take an eye out, Madonna quite literally made sex a weapon of obscenity. When her father asked her to tone down the smut the night he attended the show in Detroit, Madonna told papa not to preach. “My show is like growing up,” she explained, “you have to go through one thing to get to another.”
The image of Madonna as a rabble-rousing firebrand is exactly what made her so culturally impactful. But in Truth or Dare, her rebelliousness seems almost meretricious. During her stop in Toronto, the police cautioned Madonna against performing her faux-masturbation act during the climax of “Like a Virgin.” She refused. “Tomorrow, this is going to be in press around the world,” her manager told her, excitement flashing in the singer’s eyes. “They’ll just take you down to the station and ask a few questions, that’s the worst that can happen.” In reality, the stakes were too low for her to be questioned: a local newscast included in the film claims that officers ultimately “found nothing wrong” with the show. Paired with the earlier brush-off of a sexual assault, the glee of appearing overtly sexual onstage “for the papers” doesn’t sit right when you consider the long history of sex-positive women being wrongfully framed as “asking for it.”
While most music documentaries today don’t seem to exist for any other purpose than to say, Wait, this pop star’s a good person, cut them some slack—Taylor Swift does think about politics, Justin Bieber does work hard—Truth or Dare makes Madonna look like a straight-up megalomaniac. The doc reveals that for the singer, any decision she makes is morally centered along the lines of what might serve her. In her disregard of other people’s inner worlds—the trauma of Gault, the lives of the dancers once they no longer feature Madonna—Truth or Dare shows us the destructive consequences when the fantasy of the spoiled, rich white girl is made real.
(Pitchfork earns a commission from purchases made through affiliate links on our site.)
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork