Truth or Dare: How Madonna's Documentary Changed the Next 20 Years
"There's nothing to say off camera," goes Warren Beatty's famous roast of Madonna in the 1991 documentaryTruth or Dare. "Why would you say something if it's off camera? What point is there existing?"
He's mocking Madonna, his then-girlfriend, and the "insane" atmosphere her film crew added backstage during her 1990 Blonde Ambition Tour. The apparent generational divide in the exchange between the Hollywood legend and the savvy media manipulator has only amplified in the time since the movie's release. What once seemed like a fair point seems terribly quaint in these heavily documented times: who among us doesn't want to live off camera? Or, at the very least, who would be surprised to find out that someone you know doesn't?
Madonna has rarely had her finger directly on the pulse—it took her years to dabble in electronica and new jack swing and French house—but over 20 years after its release, Truth or Dare is relevant as ever. (It's out on Blu-ray for the first time today.) It's as close to a memoir as Madonna has ever gotten, and it's brilliantly fitting that the music video master stuck with the trusted audio-visual format that catapulted her to success. Why write when you can be? Madonna's life banged the dust out of vérité entertainment, suggesting the documentary didn't have to be stuffy, that it could be wildly entertaining and overwhelmingly trashy. Echoes of it are apparent in reality TV today, particularly that which focuses on stars (if Truth or Dare was the slightly sinister but mostly good-humored Mondo Cane of celebrity portraits, Being Bobby Brown was Faces of Death).
The film reflected our intensifying fascination with all facets of celebrity life. We see Madonna repeatedly flanked with cameras, we see throngs waiting for her outside of Chanel, we hear rabid fans on the ground from her hotel room. Madonna told Good Morning America that with Truth or Dare, she aimed "to explode the myth that we raise up on a pedestal people we turn into icons. We make them inhuman and we don't give them human attributes so they're not allowed to fail, they're not allowed to make mistakes." Not every star today cosigns on this level of invasion, but those who do (Dina Lohan, Paris Hilton) often talk about reclaiming their public image from the public, echoing Madonna.
A collection of human attributes and mistakes, Truth or Dare predicted the real-women-being-real-bad subgenre of reality TV. Throughout the movie, Madonna acts like a monster. She laughs when she finds out her makeup artist was raped and then explains, "All I can think of is that she started talking about how she's on tour with me, she's staying at the Ritz Carlton and those guys got it in their mind they were going to fuck with her." She tells those who appear with her onstage how much she loves them to their faces and then talks behind their backs about how her backup singers annoy her and hanging out with her dancers gets boring. She mocks Kevin Costner (who to be fair is sporting stringy hair, shoulder pads and a mock turtleneck) for calling her show, "Neat," as soon as his back his turned. She throws unexplained shade at Belinda Carlisle, Janet Jackson and, most confusingly, Oprah (Chicago's conservatism is a reason "to not wanna live in Chicago — beside for the fact that Oprah Winfrey lives here"). She laments Antonio Banderas' marriage in front of his wife. She throws tantrums and is oblivious to the manipulation of her manager, who calms her down with flattery.
Madonna's camera-awareness almost supersedes that of Snooki when she says something particularly stupid with a glint in her eye. Madonna practically squeals when she finds out she may be arrested for simulating masturbation in Toronto (the a capella rendition of "Holiday" she and her dancers harmonize in front of the Canadian police is real tough stuff, too). After a shouting match over the phone with Beatty, Madonna slams down the receiver, screams, "What an asshole," and then wanders her eyes so that she's looking directly in the camera. Then she smirks. The movie opens with a staged scene of her cleaning up her hotel room, which is absurd (I don't clean up my hotel room and I'm not a diva). Alek Keshishian admitted to manipulating her with the cunning of a reality producer by basically throwing her into a scene with her down and out childhood friend Moira McFarland with a few seconds of prior warning. And then, a squirming Madonna blows off her former cohort, refusing to even sit down while this sad woman begs her to be the godmother of the child she's carrying. With uncanny prescience, Madonna announces that she's not there to make friends.
It's all deliciously cringey, a train wreck before Madonna's popularity began to wane (in fact, Truth or Dare inadvertently captured her at peak popularity). It's also brave, and not just for Madonna's willingness to show her ass (watching, you wonder if even upon review she realized what a nightmare she was being, or if she thought her whole display was cute and worth sharing). No, it's brave most notably for its portrayal of homosexuality. Madonna's more than happy to use her dancers' culture (minus Oliver, who claimed he was straight) to shock, as a close-up on two dudes kissing was most certainly tailored to be, but Truth or Dare more often is often more blunt than that. Talented, funny, rivetingly bitchy gay dudes are allowed to exist as themselves in a vehicle that had built-in attention. "If you keep putting something in somebody's face, eventually, maybe they can come to terms with it," is how the woman who got Stephanie Tanner to vogue explained her commitment to the cause of gay acceptance to Good Morning America. (Given the switching back and forth from grainy black and white to exploding color onstage, the whole thing has a gay-coded Wizard of Ozfeel while explaining that Madonna's trips to fantasyland are a nightly occurrence.)
Truth or Dare is sometimes infuriating (a mid-tour switch from long ponytail to tight curls breaks up the continuity of the film as it switches from live to backstage footage and is never explained), but it's rarely less than fantastically entertaining. For as indicative as it was of where things in pop culture were headed, it's also a relic of a time before grueling media training, when pop stars didn't hang on the approval of their publicists before talking. It's bold and mouthy and exhilaratingly misguided. Just a few years later, Madonna's boundary pushing would eventually cost her fans, as the relatively low sales ofErotica reflected. Madonna talked out of both sides of her mouth when discussing the film with MTV's Kurt Loder, calling it "totally honest," and then explaining, "Even a lie is telling."
In Truth or Dare, Madonna offered a version of herself and, in a way that would incite furious recapping were it released 20 years later, let us determine what it meant. The result was more dare than truth, just as we like it.