In the riveting documentary Truth or Dare, Madonna does what she’s always threatening to do: She exposes herself — and the more we experience her giddy, childlike impulsiveness, the more we like her. Shot during the 1990 Blond Ambition tour, with the behind-the-scenes stuff in black and white and seven or eight concert sequences in color, the movie is something I thought we’d never see again: a canny and exuberant cinema verité rock-doc, complete with off-the-cuff interviews, cameos by guest celebrities (Warren Beatty looks annoyed, Kevin Costner says her show is ”neat” and then ducks out of the room), and a coruscating, floating-crapshoot atmosphere that envelops and defines the people we see.

Near the beginning of the movie, Madonna appears onstage singing ”Express Yourself.” The choreography and neo-Metropolis set are familiar from the video, but the performance itself seems newly impassioned. In a sense, this is Madonna’s credo: If you don’t express what you feel — in sex, music, life — you’re not really going to feel it. Truth or Dare is a fascinating look at how this smallish, pert woman, her grin a sunbeam of libidinous pleasure, has turned her natural exhibitionism into a liberating form of showmanship.

The press has always tied itself in knots trying to analyze Madonna, as if there were some cosmic Warholian mystery behind everything her fans find perfectly obvious: that her songs have an exhilarating pop thrust; that Madonna, contrary to the rumor that she can’t sing (perhaps the most insidiously sexist media myth of the past decade), possesses a voice of great suppleness and warmth; that her plangent alto conveys an extraordinary empathy — especially on songs like ”Open Your Heart” and ”Cherish,” when she focuses on the object of her desire; that by transforming herself into an imperious blond goddess-tart, she has made it okay for women to feel sexy and liberated at the same time; and that, along with Prince, she’s helped repopularize the feeling that sex is more fun, and maybe more honest, when it’s energized by a playful sense of sin. What makes all of this matter (especially the sex part) is that Madonna does it with joy. She combines subversiveness and elation in a way that most musicians have stopped even trying to.

Throughout Truth or Dare, she displays both the impish sincerity and the compulsion to dominate that can be so naughty and winning in her interviews. Yet she also reveals the workhorse behind the pop idol: the show-biz perfectionist whose concerts are as intricate as Broadway shows and who reigns over managers, technicians, musicians, and dancers like a combination dictator and den mother. Directed by Alek Keshishian, the movie is like a ’90s update of the 1967 Bob Dylan documentary, Don’t Look Back. Once again, a star is observed hanging out in hotel rooms and dressing rooms, attended by a loving entourage but always, in some self-imposed way, alone. As in most good documentaries, a story emerges, a gradually escalating tension as the tour winds through America and then Europe. When a tabloid article appears linking Madonna romantically to one of her dancers, it has a subtle, disruptive effect.

Audiences today, of course, are far more knowing about the limits of documentary ”realism.” There’s no denying that Truth or Dare is, on some level, a piece of packaged gossip, with Madonna (who served as executive producer) doing the packaging. Whether she’s jokingly fellating an Evian bottle or brushing off a woman she used to know before she was a star, leading a nightly preconcert prayer (as if before a big game) or reassuring her squarer-than-square, middle-American dad that, yes, she can actually get him tickets to the show, Madonna, it’s clear, is presenting herself in whatever light she chooses. Yet nothing we see feels dishonest or overly calculated. (Well, almost nothing: When she casually removes her shirt, it seems a surefire gambit to sell tickets.) The clearest — and most charismatic — thing about Madonna is that she always has to make herself the focal point of all the energy in the room. Her craving for an audience is so omnipresent and so strangely sincere that we can easily believe she’s been this way since the seventh grade. She’s not an egomaniacal star. She’s a natural egomaniac whom stardom completes.

The most daring — and revelatory — aspect of the movie is how candidly it depicts Madonna’s symbiotic relationship with her dancers, almost all of whom are gay. They’re her ”children,” defiantly bitchy and hard-shelled, but in some essential way passive. They can be dominated by Madonna and still be themselves. One senses that Madonna adores the company of young men who turn every waking moment into a form of extravagant, eroticized theater. At the same time, she can flirt with these guys all day long and remain a Good Catholic Girl. (If she didn’t stay in touch with the Good, she couldn’t be Bad.) In Truth or Dare, Madonna does more than show us the backstage life of a pop star. With inspiring frankness, she reveals the roots of her style. A-

Madonna: Truth or Dare
  • Movie
  • 114 minutes