Sometimes it’s hard to remember: Was Madonna really the biggest pop star in the world when her documentary Truth Or Dare was released in the summer of 1991, or was that just the part she played in the movie? Alek Keshishian’s stylish look at the backstage drama attending Madonna’s global Blond Ambition tour arrived at an unusual point in the singer’s evolution, both as an artist and as a public figure. After spending the ’80s courting controversy, Madonna spent the ’90s seeing how much further she could venture into sexual and religious provocation, and whether she could turn the act of provocation itself into a kind of art. In 1992, Madonna unleashed the coffee-table book Sex, full of nudity and references to sadomasochism. And when Truth Or Dare came out, much of the buzz around the movie had to do with Madonna’s casual (albeit brief) nudity, her frank sex talks with her mostly gay dance troupe, and the scene where she fellates an Evian bottle. The aggressively “candid” backstage material—coupled with the snippets of Madonna’s then-boyfriend Warren Beatty chastising her for exposing so much of her private life on-camera—transformed the conversation about Madonna’s edginess into a conversation about how much of that edginess was calculated, and perhaps phony. That became who Madonna was, at least for a few years: controversy in quotation marks.
Watching Madonna: Truth Or Dare today (on the new, damnably features-free Blu-ray edition), there’s a lot that’s surprising, including how young Beatty, Madonna, and the briefly appearing Antonio Banderas and Sandra Bernhard all look. And the movie is awfully raunchy, from Madonna fake-masturbating onstage to her cracking jokes about farting, tampons, and penis size with her entourage. Compared to the increasingly brittle, cautiously patrician Madonna of recent years, it’s a kick to see her so playful, as she makes catty remarks about Kevin Costner and Oprah Winfrey in her post-adolescent Detroit rasp. There are times in Truth Or Dare when we do seem to be seeing the real “real Madonna,” like when she’s exasperatedly telling her father that she can get him tickets to any show he likes, or when she’s taking a defensive posture toward an old friend who’s approached her backstage with a favor to ask.
But it’s also easy to see why three of Madonna’s dancers sued her over the movie, claiming she violated their privacy and misrepresented who they are. It’s not just that Madonna seems to be forcing her crew to open up about their sexual attitudes, but also that she later added a diary-like voiceover narration that painted her as the sainted mother to a bunch of lost, squabbling children. Truth Or Dare also emphasizes the moments on the Blond Ambition tour when Madonna was threatened with protests or possible arrest because of the show’s racy content, which the star uses to tout her First Amendment bona fides. There’s a hagiographic aspect to Truth Or Dare that’s disquieting even now, especially given that an honest movie about this genuinely groundbreaking tour—which became the model for ambitious pop-star concerts—and the high-school-play-like camaraderie of its personnel would’ve had more lasting value. As it stands, Truth Or Dare is useful today largely as a study in marketing. When an ill Madonna cancels some shows and says in her narration, “I had to admit that I was a human being,” is she aware of how narcissistic she sounds? Is that part of the game she’s playing? Just how far back does this hall of mirrors go?
Key features: None. But the movie’s mix of grainy black-and-white and vivid color sure looks pretty on Blu-ray.