We gave it a D+
Is Gloria Estefan asking for it or what? By releasing her 60-minute home-video documentary, Gloria Estefan: Coming Out of the Dark, during the same week that Madonna’s Truth or Dare opened in theaters across the country, the Miami-based Cuban-American singer seemed to be looking for comparisons to be made. Not that she’s a lesser singer than the Material Girl; actually, Estefan has a far better voice. But both of these projects use the same structure and visual approach (both go overboard on ”arty” black-and- white backstage footage, for one thing), supposedly to give a warts-and-all glimpse of pop-music celebrity. The difference is that while Truth or Dare pulls you further into Madonna’s hermetic world than you may care to go, Gloria Estefan: Coming Out of the Dark constantly pushes you away.
The woman’s entitled to her privacy, of course. Besides, exactly where does it say we have to know everything about our favorite stars? Uh, on the cassette jacket for this video, which promises that we’ll ”get to know Gloria like never before” and go ”into the private world of…the superstar songwriter, performer, wife, and mother.” Yet while this tape takes you into recording studios, concert halls, video shoots, and Estefan’s own bedroom, you come away knowing little more than that she’s a hardworking performer. Even the interview segments, in which Estefan blandly describes her new album, Into the Light, as ”a real labor of love,” ring like strung-together cliches. It’s a mark of this documentary’s weird reticence that the viewer isn’t even aware the singer has a 10-year-old son until a closing dedication crawl.
But this isn’t really a documentary, anyway, any more than Madonna’s movie is. They’re just more product for the marketing maw. Ms. Ciccone wants to have it both ways, though — to celebrate herself while playing with the very notion of celebrity. Dark presents the star-making machinery without a shred of insight or irony, and its voice-over narration is typified by such bubbleheaded non-speak as ”A world tour is no walk in the park.”
Oddly, the cookie-cutter impersonality extends even to the well-publicized 1990 bus crash that nearly paralyzed the singer and from which her current world tour is a genuinely remarkable comeback. While the experience prompted a more emotional turn in Estefan’s songwriting, in such tunes as Into the Light‘s ”Nayib’s Song” (written to her son), this video studiously avoids the event except in a little news footage at the beginning of the tape. Perhaps Estefan and her husband-career manager, Emilio (the executive producer of Dark), wanted to leave the past behind, or maybe they thought it would be tacky to exploit tragedy.
Okay, but watching Estefan work up a sweat in an exhausting dance rehearsal seems like typical MTV nonsense — unless you read the papers and know that this woman has two eight-inch steel rods attached to her spine for support. Then it seems startlingly impressive. But the video’s not telling.
In the end, Dark appears to be just the latest step in the Estefans’ master plan to turn Gloria into a worldwide superstar along the lines of the Jacksons and Madonna. It’s a process in which the singer apparently intends to trade in the qualities that made her and Miami Sound Machine original in the first place (a smart fusion of dance-pop and Latin rhythms) for overproduced sonic blandness like Into the Light‘s first single, ”Coming Out of the Dark.” Spontaneity doesn’t figure in the plan, and that may be one reason the new album is already headed down the charts after peaking at No. 5.
Spontaneity isn’t part of this video, either. There’s a telling moment when a band member makes a mildly salacious comment about one of the songs and Estefan darts a look at the camera, nervously chortling, ”Ho ho, we’ll have to cut that out.” Unfortunately, the fact that it remains in is the closest the filmmakers come to endowing their star with an actual personality. Compared to the funky, lewd unpredictability of Truth or Dare, Dark is a glossy souvenir poster to look at while playing the record — nothing more, nothing less. True, both Madonna and Estefan are control freaks when it comes to their images, but only the former dares to invite us in to see that control at work, possibly to comprehend the why of it. Everything about Gloria Estefan’s tape, on the other hand — despite what the title says — leaves her fans in the dark. D+