A review requested by Alison with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

The 1991 document Madonna: Truth or Dare is a fascinating artifact, one that I honestly can't quite figure out how to even describe. Despite existing for very nearly no other reason than to carefully manage and sell the image of its titular star, then at the absolute zenith of her pop-culture visibility, I don't get the impression that the film gives the most marginal fraction of a shit as to whether we actually like Madonna, or her music (which is good for me, because I don't). It doesn't really exist to showcase her performances as part of the 1990 "Blonde Ambition" tour, though plenty of those performances are depicted; it exists, rather, as an of extension of the star's own force of personality and will. It feels like it had ought to be important to point out that what we're watching is self-evidently staged reality, designed from the ground up to present an idea of Madonna that she's willing to sign off on, and yet that's no particular insight at all, nor even slightly valuable as a way to enter into a discussion about the film. Of course the movie about Madonna in 1990 would present a modulated, self-conscious depiction of her personality. Self-consciously deciding how one self-presents is the whole point of Madonna.

What this means, of course, is that the thing we're watching when we watch Truth or Dare isn't quite a documentary and definitely isn't narrative fiction, but is some kind of of narrative written out of the material of the real world. In this respect, the only thing I can immediately think to compare it to is a Werner Herzog documentary (not one of his modern-day "the world adventures of a cartoon German" films, but his old "the truth is more important than facts" films, like Herdsmen of the Sun or especially Little Dieter Needs to Fly), though it would be claiming too much to say that Truth or Dare is on the hunt for "ecstatic truth". And it would also, I suspect, be claiming too much to suggest that 26-year-old director Alek Keshishian had Herzog or any other art filmmakers in mind, or even that he's the film's true auteur: it seems clear enough that he's nought but Madonna's proxy in deciding how the material is to be shaped and what message is to be drawn out of it.

One thing Keshishian might have been in charge of, I suppose, was selecting the film's aesthetic, which in fairness is quite a hell of a thing. The film has two kinds of scenes, generally speaking: the wired, fraught backstage of a major concert tour, and the onstage performances themselves. These are presented in two hugely different aesthetic registers. Backstage, the footage captured by Keshishian's small army of camera operators (chief among them Robert Leacock, son of the great direct cinema pioneer Richard Leacock) is all in high-contrast, grainy black-and-white, while the performance footage is in bright color; extra-lurid bright color, I'd almost be tempted to say, but it's at least possible that's only a function of the shocking juxtaposition of the two color schemes making the color footage seem that much more colorful. Meanwhile, the backstage footage is all handheld and generally in longish takes, while the performances have been shot with crisp, stable footage that's cut with the machine-gun speed typical of that era of music videos (at one point, the concert footage switches over to slow-motion, completely crushing the last vestige of documentary realism there). In fact, it would be pretty easy to sum up the basic stylistic strategy of the film as low-budget documentary versus MTV, though the high-contrast footage is itself so intensely stylish that it's already taken at least one step away from "documentary" and towards "fashion photography".

But that's of little matter. The basic division within the film holds, and the enormous contrast as it shifts from one phase to the other is one of the primary moving force of the film. Not just visually, either: the basic thematic stuff of the film is encoded within those two stylistic strategies. The bright colors and overcranked editing of the performance sequences adds to the impression of "just hanging around trying to capture the madness as it happens" realism of the backstage footage, while the casual, ragged, artless backstage imagery exaggerates the degree to which the onstage footage feels like larger-than-life spectacle. And spectacle it very much it is - the "Blonde Ambition" tour set new standards for theatricality in pop music concerts, and while we see surprisingly little of it Truth or Dare's two hours, what we get promises a fairly amazing pantomime of sex and religion and how they are, for Madonna, incarnations of the same impulses. Keshishian's presentation of these performances invests them with such movement and color, as well as such remarkable shifts between intimacy and performativity, that it's damn near impossible to avoid being swept up in their pageantry, and I say that as a viewer whose affection for Madonna starts and ends with "Like a Prayer". While there are a handful of concert films that are unequivocal masterworks of cinema - The Last Waltz and Stop Making Sense foremost among them - it's precious rare for concert footage to actually work as a movie, and I, for one, would never have assumed that some untried kid making what amounts to a brand extension exercise would have come within spitting distance of that standard. But it surely does, and not just because the stage show presents such kinetic design and spirited choreography to capture.

The backstage footage is less interesting to look at, though it is undoubtedly more interesting to discuss and thinkpiece about, as is dramatically attested to by the glut of thinkpieces that greeted the film's 25th anniversary. I frankly don't know what to make of this part of the movie. It captures the sense of tension and craziness that we can all assume is part and parcel of a major tour, but it's also obviously been designed to a certain extent, even if that extent is only that Madonna herself possesses an absolute awareness that she's in front of a camera, and willingly performs "herself" for it. This isn't hidden. There are, I think, three minutes where something happens that was more or less accidental: one is when Kevin Costner (wearing the god-damnedest mullet) appears backstage to stiffly call the show "neat"; one is when Madonna's childhood friend shows up during her hometown concert, to enact a nightmarishly creepy "obsessed non-fan" routine in which she asks Madonna to be the godmother to her unborn child, a request that Madonna deflects with admirable grace, considering how stalkery the whole thing feels; one (the one I really wanted to get to) is when Madonna's then-boyfriend, noted lothario Warren Beatty, just up and demands if anybody involved in the tour is as disturbed as he is by the cameras, and Madonna's habit of playing "everyday life" as a media event. Note that Madonna herself approved of this footage showing up in the final cut (note also that she and Beatty had split up by the time Truth or Dare opened); it's clearly not a charge she's upset about, or is worried will spoil her persona.

Because that is Madonna's persona: decide who you want to be, then be that person, and that then becomes reality. Post-Lady Gaga, post-Katy Perry, post-Ke$ha, post-God knows who, this is no longer a shocking thing; in 1990 and 1991, it was outlandishly radical. Or, at least, owning it like that was (I don't know when the micromanagement of music stars' images began, but it was at least in place by the time Elvis Presley's gyrating pelvis was kept offscreen during his third appearance on Ed Sullivan). This is the heart and soul of Madonna's genius: informing us that her apparent personality is essentially performance art, and in doing so demand that we think about what celebrity personality even means: what it means in terms of commodification of the body, in terms of what we as society "expect" of famous people, and of women, and of famous women above all (and, of course, Madonna's other stroke of genius, alluded to throughout Truth or Dare but never exactly clarified, was to explicitly and without male oversight express her own sexuality as an act of radical feminism, and then successfully commercialise it). None of this seems particularly groundbreaking now, I don't think, and that's of course because of how thoroughly Madonna won: we are more or less definitively living in a post-Madonna celebrity culture. The precisely-massaged version of herself that she displays in Truth or Dare - outspoken, swears a lot, has fun talking about sex, cares deeply about the people around her and wants to be a mom figure for the outcasts and disadvantaged (her backup dancers are mostly gay men of color, also a much bigger statement in 1990 than it seems now) - was a major part of the moment that caused that cultural shift. Truth or Dare was, at the time, the highest-grossing documentary in history (a record it lost after eleven years to Bowling for Columbine), which was only enough to make it the 78th-highest-grossing film of 1991; but still, a cultural milestone is a cultural milestone.

It would be unfair to accuse the movie of being synthetic: much of what happens around Madonna is clearly authentic and spontaneous. Particularly concerning her backup dancers, a cluster of men who were clearly excited and overstimulated and thus subject to a number of tensions that end up feeling far more consequential than the "official" sources of drama, like whether Toronto will arrest Madonna for simulating masturbation onstage (spoiler alert: of course they didn't). It's worth mentioning that three of the most prominently-featured dancers later sued for misrepresentation, violation of privacy, and emotional manipulation in the course of producing the documentary, so maybe that too should be taken with a grain of salt. But then that gets us back to the Herzog thing: if it feels true, that's as important as if it is true. And while Truth or Dare presents an editorialised vision of life on the road with Madonna, there's still a reality being depicted: people sniped at each other, therapeutic shopping trips were made, and Madonna's microphone really did flicker out onstage, without her even slowing down in the energy of her performance. Those things happened, and so what if they're worked up into a somewhat legendary depiction of the figure at the center? The stated argument of Truth or Dare is that we're getting the warts-and-all reality of Madonna, but the true argument is that the constructed Madonna is far more interesting and consequential than "reality", and the pseudo-documentary Truth or Dare is a better fit for its subject than a severely detached, bitterly journalistic Truth or Dare could possibly have been.