A Madonna Concert Film That’s Heavy on Message, Light on Euphoria
Madame X, the new Madonna concert film, opens with a montage of some of the pop superstar’s most legendary performances, music videos, and shock-theater provocations: the infamous moments from the MTV Video Music Awards, the transgressive S&M imagery and Gaultier fashion, the tabloid headlines like “What a Tramp” and “Madonna Has No Shame” (how quaint in the age of Instagram!), the on-cue outrage from the Catholic Church.
The film closes with a montage of oppressed people and groups from around the world set to Madonna’s onstage performance of I Rise, a song about the powerless standing up to fight the power. The opening montage reminds you of the impassioned and sometimes scandalous effusiveness of Madonna in her heyday; each clip gives off a buzz. The final montage is earnest to a fault, and the song, while working overtime to be an anthem, is serviceable and far from ecstatic. (I don’t think it would inspire many people to rise.)
In Madame X, we see Madonna toggling between two poles: the self-mythologizing pop enchantress and the regally committed savior of the masses. She tries to morph, seamlessly, from one to the other, playing up the idea that “artists are there to disturb the peace,” and evoking how much she has always been attacked for doing that very thing. Early on, she sits at a desk onstage, typing out a lengthy quote from James Baldwin, and by the end she has repeated the silhouetted typing number so often that we get the point: She herself is an artist just like Baldwin. Certainly, there’s a political dimension to Madonna’s art. At her height, she was a revolutionary, changing the possibilities for women, smashing more than a few ceilings to do so. For those of us who adore her, in song after song her passion and her message are inseparable. But one other thing that’s inseparable from those two things used to be her joy.
Madame X, on the joy scale, feels drained. The show is a concert that plays, at times, like a lecture – or maybe the world’s most extended Oscar/Grammy star-makes-a-statement speech. But I don’t say that because I begrudge Madonna’s message. It’s just that she didn’t use to be so deadly serious and, at times, almost punitive about it.
Continue reading on Variety.com.