The thunderous sound of foreheads being slapped across the globe met Madonna’s statement that she wants to become a director.
“I would love to direct a film,” she told Channel 4 news on Sunday night, where she was promoting the latest documentary to feature her, I’m Going to Tell You a Secret. “I felt very inspired making this movie … I would like to do it on my own next time.” The juicy soundbite is one way, of course, to garner a little extra publicity for Secret. But let us suppose she is for real. Is any film-making adventure she undertakes guaranteed to end in humiliation and disaster, as one might assume? Or is she, in fact, likely to make a better job of it than her husband, Guy Ritchie?
For almost as long as she has been a pop star, Madonna has clearly nurtured ambitions to make it in the movies. Selling vast numbers of records hasn’t been quite enough. The music industry is a young person’s game, and Madonna, in her late 40s, is perhaps on the verge of losing her creative dignity. The film world represents a different, more established kind of elite, and one where an artist can age gracefully.
Madonna hasn’t always been terrible in the movies. (Nor, it should be remembered, has Ritchie, whose first two films were actually funny.) With a good script, sensible direction and a functioning sense of humour, Madonna has managed to put two bona fide good films on to her acting c.v. Admittedly, they were both a long time ago: Desperately Seeking Susan, from almost the dawn of her career in the 1980s, and Dick Tracy, from the Warren Beatty period in 1990.
Most of her other acting work has resulted in unalloyed humiliation, from her Sean Penn collaboration Shanghai Surprise to Swept Away, which played a central role in the immolation of Ritchie’s own filmmaking career. Whoever she has allied herself with – whether romantic partners such as Penn, Beatty and Ritchie, or credible directors such as Woody Allen (Shadows and Fog), Abel Ferrara (Dangerous Game) and John Schlesinger (The Next Best Thing) – the result has almost always been bad.
You might think it obvious that her forays on to celluloid should end in disaster. In his excellent article on why musicians make such terrible film stars, Joe Queenan advances the idea that the very qualities that make someone a successful pop star – acting like a maniac, treating everyone like dirt, being overweeningly arrogant and accustomed to hugely exaggerated performing styles – work directly against what it takes to come across well on screen. Many others have tried – Jagger, Sting, Prince, Dylan, Elvis – and failed. Only those with modest cinematic ambitions, such as David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth, Tina Turner in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and Tom Waits in Down by Law, have got away with it.
Fewer have had the temerity to sit in the director’s chair. Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics made a complete pig’s ear of Honest, the All Saints movie, which, with some justification, can be nailed as the film that brought down the lottery-era British film industry. Bob Dylan had a couple of gos in the 1970s, with unhappy results. Prince is credited director of the indefatigably self-serving Under the Cherry Moon and Graffiti Bridge. White Zombie’s Rob Zombie has indulged, fairly successfully, in his personal taste for nauseating slasher films. Richard Jobson, one-time punk, is turning out one film after another, to mixed receptions.
The truth is that musicians are generally artists used to working alone, or with small teams of highly committed technicians. Film sets, with their battalion-sized crews and rudimentary privacy arrangements, are not the environments in which they flourish best.
But one aspect of Madonna’s output – music videos – gives us some hope. Of course, it doesn’t take a genius to hire David Fincher, Jonas Akerlund or Luc Besson to promote your music, but many others with similar purchasing power have done a lot worse. And though it’s easy to put too much emphasis on competence in the music video arena (Dave Stewart is one of many who have conspicuously failed to trade upwards), Madonna has some claim to have developed a certain cinematic style in her videos.
This doesn’t necessarily mean interesting narrative content – Like a Prayer, probably her best-known effort in this department, has school-play level acting and camerawork – but her evolving thematic obsessions have found convincing visual expression in one music promo after another. At one end of the 1990s, Vogue and Justify My Love did a good job in evoking Hollywood golden-age glamour and sleaze; at the other, Frozen and Ray of Light made simple but effective use of the advances in digital effects that the decade had seen. Interspersed between these high points are oddities such as Music, starring Ali G, or Beautiful Stranger, the song from Austin Powers, which confirm Madonna’s astute eye.
She certainly has the strength of will to become a film-maker, too. Akerlund is the credited director of You’re the Next Best Thing, but you can’t imagine a single edit got in without Madonna’s approval. And she knows the worth of a good photographer and art director, which is half the battle of film-making.
With her relentless drive, Madonna would have no trouble cutting the mustard as a producer – like her near-contemporary Michael Stipe, who has credits on Being John Malkovich, Thirteen Conversations About One Thing and Saved!. Putting yourself into the creative arena, however, is a step of a different magnitude.
Most successful musicians have decided they have too much to lose. Madonna, if she has any sense, will feel she doesn’t need the pressure. But the siren call of the opening title may be too much to resist: A film by Madonna.
source : guardian.co.uk