When it comes to controversial pop stars, few artists have riled up the general public – and her own fan base – more than Madonna. From religion to sex, the Material Girl has always sought attention for her world view and usually got it. In the process, she’s seen artists sometimes literally half her age rise and fall, while she still commands a large fan base eager to spend money on her content, and a mainstream media that eats up whatever she’ll serve them.
The headlines for her most recent tour, Madame X, were far from the good kind of controversy she’s generated in the past, though. There were a number of canceled dates, many due to her own injuries and sickness. The shows that did actually happen saw her often appear over two hours late, inspiring boos from attendees and the demanding of refunds.
For lifelong fans of Madonna (like myself), none of this is new. We’reused to paying sky-high ticket prices and then waiting forever for her to arrive. In fact, I don’t think I’ve attended a concert of hers where she was actually on stage before 10:30 – at the earliest. This time was different: she opted for a theater tour that only hit a handful of cities in the United States and Europe. Due to the smaller setting and limited seating, tickets were even higher than usual, and smartphones were banned. Nothing like paying $500 for your seat and having to sit there without your phone, all the while thinking of how you’ll have to wake up for work in just a few hours.
In many ways, it was a fitting tour for an era of Madonna’s career most would rather forget. Reviews were just so-so, sales were incredibly sluggish, and for the first time in her career, no single off the album charted in the Billboard Hot 100. Yikes. When the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic canceled her few remaining concert dates, is it any wonder some of her fans breathed a sigh of relief and said to themselves, “Thank God that’s over?”
Enter Madame X, the concert film. It’s an attempt to redeem this time in her lengthy, luminous career that fell short in so many ways. It’s presented cinematically with a healthy dose of editing and dozens of cuts to remind you you’re not watching simply a filmed concert, but an actual film. The production is an extraordinary piece of work that shows the artistry Madonna can conjure.
Weaving her way through James Baldwin quotes, political statements, and new music inspired by Colombian rap and Portuguese fado, the Queen of Pop patches all of her viewpoints together in a tight package, and it’s a feast for the eyes. Of the new music, there are a few tracks to enjoy. “Crazy” stands out as a catchy tune expressing heartbreak and the recovery from it. “I Don’t Search, I Find” is a particular highlight, with sound and visuals harking back to the star’s “Erotica” days. And, as usual (and to the frustration of many), the show is light on her greatest hits. Other than “Vogue” and “Like A Prayer,” you you won’t find much of her blockbuster material.
That said, the biggest question I had watching it all was, “Just who is this concert film for?” For the casual Madonna fans, Madame X is too politically downbeat, and quite frankly depressing, in its messaging at many points to qualify as pop entertainment, even in its quieter moments. To her devotees, it’s preaching to a choir that’s heard this sermon before in much more enjoyable settings.
None of this is to say Madame X isn’t a fine concert film. It is. And being able to stream it for $9.99 is vastly easier on the wallet than the cost of a seat at one of her shows. Its tone however ensures that, for most, repeat viewings likely won’t be common. I’m sure Madonna will return to the pulpit when next she feels like riling up the congregation. Let’s just hope the next sermon will be a tad more upbeat than this one.