Madame X (2021)

RICARDO GOMES, SASHA KASIUHA, SKNX, NUNO XICO

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5

Alternate Title: Madonna: Madame X

USA, 2021. . Film Editing by Stratton Farrar, Sasha Kasiuha, Nuno Xico.

The Queen of Pop moved to Portugal some years back to support her son David’s burgeoning soccer career and, thanks to her time there, the various musical cultures of the country inspired much of her 2019 studio album Madame X. In deciding to promote the album with a tour, went a different route from her previous stadium gigs and staged a concept show in more modest venues, to highlight what is usually a very theatrical element to her shows, in this case performing as the persona of the album’s titular character and, allegedly, creating something of a throughline to the songs she has assembled in which that character features as protagonist.

The show has, as has always been the case with Madonna’s fabulous tours, been captured by cameras and turned into a film that does a great disservice to the home viewer, who is denied the opportunity to really enjoy feeling like they’re taking in live theatre, thanks to rapid-fire editing that, very annoyingly, blends together bits of the same moments from various tour dates (with the sound altered to make this obvious, and make it that much more annoying).

Madonna is never better than when she’s putting on a live show, it’s the aspect of her entire artistic output at which she cannot be equalled, and no matter how big, loud and ornate her concerts have been in the past, they have never dwarfed her bewitching, commanding personality; this means that it is with great displeasure that I, someone who had no one but her on his mind for most of his formative years, announces that this latest effort is a great disappointment. Whether she’s actually performing a character or just being herself is not consistent throughout this performance, there’s no narrative to the presentation, mainly a collection platitudes that come through from songs mostly chosen from the new album, while the few catalogue hits (Human Nature, Vogue, Like A Prayer) are not given the usual retooling that she is prone to and feel uncomfortably horned in because of fear for audience appeal.

The Madame X album was a shift in expression in many ways for Madonna, not only abandoning any desire to create Top Ten bangers, as seemed the case with her last few records, but also going a little further beyond her usual subject, herself. A woman who has been a billionaire for this long isn’t enough a part of real society to write songs about what she observes on the streets among the people, but after MDNA (which was mainly focused on her own feelings about her 2008 divorce from Guy Ritchie) and Rebel Heart (which dealt with her embracing her fame as an enduring icon, as well as expressing any other feelings she has about any subsequent heartbreaks in her admirably robust love life), Madame X expresses the singer’s current concern with current headline topics such as racism, gun violence and gender identity, and the show bears witness to this turn to global thinking.

While I would never be cynical enough to suggest that Madonna is only using these topics as a way to continue to stay relevant after thirty years of stardom (in fact, I guarantee you she cares about these topics), she writes lyrics that feel like she cares far too much about expressing these concerns in ways that the young kids will attach themselves to and make go viral; in recent years, Madonna has been dealt a lot of unfair ageism from critics (and supposed fans) about how she should behave and dress at her age, and what she shouldn’t be doing to her physical appearance, and some radio stations have even proudly boasted that they refuse to play music by anyone as old as her, and after years of earning adoration from her most devoted followers for never seeming the least bit perturbed by criticism thrown her way, Madonna seems to be lowering herself to these idiots’ levels by constantly needing to prove them wrong.

As a result, her taking on a lot of liberal low-hanging fruit (let’s face it, you either believe in gun control or you don’t) in a manner that she doesn’t seem to realize isn’t all that nuanced or complicated makes her seem unintelligent and, please forgive my saying this, old, and that might be the most shocking disappointment of all.

That said, this film would be forgiven its soft ideological centre if it were a more dazzling show, but between an annoying emphasis on the pounding noises of typewriter keys, a lot of insipid narration and the Moulin Rouge-on-speed editing that appears to be employed to hide her uncomfortable physicality (she was dogged by injuries throughout the tour and it shows, she’s never looked more strained), it’s ultimately not a failure of a show or film, but also not one for the books.

A few standout numbers are worth checking out, however, particularly Crazy, Killers Who Are Partying and the album’s lead single Medellin.

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