For Madonna, “image” isn’t a noun, it’s a verb — a very active verb. Over the past seven years, since her first album, Madonna has been unavoidable. We’ve seen her almost constantly, for reasons both trivial (her hair color) and serious (her troubled marriage). She’s one of the most recognizable entertainers working today. And that’s curious, because we seldom see the same Madonna twice. Her chameleon-like approach isn’t common; most stars want to ensure their recognition. But changeability actually lies at the core of Madonna’s appeal. “The great thing is that she’s always evolving,” says Francesco Scavullo, the high-fashion photographer who has been shooting Madonna since 1983.
What she has done in the past is nothing, however, compared with what she is about to do. Even veteran Madonna watchers — who have observed her through countless image changes as singer, performer, actress, and star — cannot be prepared for the coming juggernaut. It’s. . .Madonna 1990! Bigger, better, more profound than ever! Higher notes! Deeper cleavage! Real acting! Over the next few months you won’t be able to miss her! Don’t even try!
On stage: On May 4 in Houston, Madonna’s Blond Ambition tour will be launched in the U.S. after a three-week run in Japan. Between now and late June it will be seen in 12 cities. This is more than an 18-song, 90-minute concert. It’s a richly detailed retrospective of one of the most successful recording careers of the last decade. “I really put a lot of myself into it,” Madonna told MTV. “It’s much more theatrical than anything I’ve ever done.”
On record: The single “Vogue” rocketed into the top 10 after only four weeks. The album I’m Breathless: Songs From and Inspired by the Film Dick Tracy, due out May 22, combines her own material with tunes written by Broadway’s peerless Stephen Sondheim.
On video: The elegant black-and-white treatment of “Vogue” is all over MTV, which has already devoted two weekends of promotion to her and is sponsoring a contest for home-video voguers.
On film: Dick Tracy, the movie in which Madonna costars with her director and is-he-still-or-isn’t-he? real-life romantic lead, Warren Beatty, is set for a June 15 release. She plays a nightclub singer who’s trying to seduce the famous Crimestopper.
How can one mere mortal do all this? Easy: Madonna is no mere mortal.
At the age of 31, the multiplatinum singer clearly wants to accomplish greater things on the current tour. From the use of the high-powered French fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier to the complex staging of the numbers, she has taken the production far beyond that of the average rock show. Why? In part, because this is the first time she has toured since 1987, and she’s promoting both her last album, Like a Prayer, and her upcoming I’m Breathless. But there seems to be more here than simple commerce. The show, with its retrospective quality, puts all of her work — fun and serious — in a different perspective. For a woman who has such popularity, all of this effort seems like a grab for respect. As a title, concept, and pun, Blond Ambition says it all.
The show draws from each phase of her musical career and is meant to be a recasting of her video work on the stage. “This is Madonna’s every fantasy come true,” says Vincent Patterson, the tour choreographer and codirector. “It’s one hallucination after another.”
Blond Ambition is “a combination of rock & roll, theater, and Broadway. It’s a real mixed animal,” Patterson says. “Madonna told me to break every rule I could think of, and then when I was done to make up some new ones and break them.” The show moves smoothly through a wide variety of dance styles, including classical ballet and hip-hop. But Madonna’s trademark combination of athleticism and sensuality shines in every move she makes. She’s accompanied by nine dancers (two of whom also sing backup), who become at times her version of a West Side Story street gang. In a sense they’re performing a dance marathon; the show doesn’t even pause for applause.
Or for the set changes. The evening begins and ends with a bare stage, but it’s dressed at all other times. The three major sets were designed by painter and interior decorator Christopher Ciccone, Madonna’s brother. One is an industrial, machine-like environment inspired by the “Express Yourself” video. Another depicts a Greek temple that has been converted into a Catholic church. The third is a make-believe ballroom right out of a ’30s musical. Each set becomes the backdrop for a group of songs. Overall, the current show “has more meat on its bones,” says Ciccone, who worked in a lesser capacity on Madonna’s two previous tours. “It’s 100 steps beyond the last two shows.”
The costumes are typically Madonna, only more so. Gaultier, who has a Madonna-like obsession with bustiers and body-hugging sexuality, designed nearly all of what she wears onstage. During the “Express Yourself” number, Madonna wears a dark, pin-stripe suit with slits in front, through which poke the exaggerated cone-shaped cups of her golden bra. For each of the show’s 16 songs and two encores, Madonna adopts a different look, although she leaves the stage only four times for complete costume changes. At other times she varies her appearance by taking something off, as is her custom; only occasionally does she put something on.
Like the tour, the new album is, well, ambitious. I’m Breathless: Songs From and Inspired by the Film Dick Tracy includes six songs cowritten by Madonna, two written by other pop-rock composers, and three written for the movie by Sondheim. It’s not a typical Madonna recording. Except for “Vogue,” all of the songs attempt to fit the late-’30s period of the movie. Even the material written by Madonna and Patrick Leonard — the team that brought us “Like a Prayer” and “Cherish” — has more in common with the Broadway theater than a dance club. On “Cry Baby,” a comic novelty song, Madonna affects a Betty Boopish voice. “Now I’m Following You,” a duet by Madonna and a foggy-voiced Warren Beatty, is straight off the Great White Way.
So are the Sondheim tunes. Madonna deftly handles the character aspects of these songs. As Breathless Mahoney, who never has enough money, she oozes with greed on “More” when she sings, “I’m no mathematician/All I know is addition.” But on a duet with Mandy Patinkin, “What Can You Lose,” her voice can’t quite match his for power and delicacy.
By focusing her album on the Breathless Mahoney character she plays in Dick Tracy, Madonna has, in effect, hyped her movie career. It’s the one area in which she has failed to break through. With the exception of her Madonna-ish character in Desperately Seeking Susan, she hasn’t made bad movies; she has made terrible movies. Despite the riveting screen presence she has demonstrated in her music videos, Hollywood won’t give her chances forever.
Out of the gallery of characters Madonna will offer us this summer, including the fashionable poseur from the “Vogue” video, it is probably Breathless Mahoney who will dominate. As this torch-singing gun moll, Madonna is a golden blond with slinky, skin-tight dresses. She is a siren, trying to lure Tracy, through song, away from his girlfriend, Tess Trueheart. Madonna may seem born to play Breathless, but she had to audition for the role (and, in the process, she landed the director as well as the movie, not to mention an enormous amount of pre-release publicity).
Publicity — and its frequent companion, controversy — has often been used by Madonna in a daring way. Her combination of sexual and religious imagery is strong enough to alienate some churchgoers, but not her fans. Her relationship with Sandra Bernhard, teasingly promoted on David Letterman’s late-night show as more than just friendship, pushed the envelope. But, as Madonna recently told MTV, “I think that I offend certain groups (but) I think that people who understand what I’m doing aren’t offended by it.”
Madonna’s obsession with sex and the way she exploits her own body seem to be at odds with the artistic ambitions that permeate her more recent videos and the current tour. She clearly has a mind-body problem: No matter what serious message she wants to convey, she can’t stop flashing her physical gifts. Love me for my brain, she seems to say, but don’t stop there. Madonna is a sex object — by her own choice. She is also, however, a strong, independent woman with a multimillion-dollar business. “I think the public is tired of trying to figure out whether I’m a feminist or not,” Madonna has said. “I don’t think of what I’m doing as gender specific. I am what I am, and I do what I do.”
And what she does better than anyone else is to keep her act new, but not too new. The Blond Ambition choreography is a good example. Karole Armitage, the choreographer for the “Express Yourself” video, originally was supposed to create the dances for the tour but quit when she found out that Madonna simply wanted her videos translated into stage form. “She knows what her audience wants,” says Armitage, who is still on good terms with the singer. “The concert is for the fan, who gets a slightly different version of the songs.” But not so different that the fans are disappointed.
As sharp as Madonna’s instincts are, they can be wrong. Last fall when she tossed off the song “Vogue” with co-composer Shep Pettibone, it was meant to be an obscure flip side to one of the singles from Like a Prayer. “We were just after a fun club record,” Pettibone recalls. “But when the record company bigwigs heard it, they said, ‘This is a No. 1 smash record. Let’s not put it on a B-side and lose it.”‘ The music executives, as the charts now prove, heard something that Madonna missed.
If Madonna’s record is any indicator, she’ll learn from the experience. Few performers have shown her capacity for self-improvement. Compare her singing voice on her debut, Madonna, and Like a Prayer: The difference is astonishing. In 1983, she sounded thin and squeaky, remarkably like the very young Michael Jackson. Six years later, after extensive training, she has depth and range. It’s still not one of the great voices of our time, but Madonna has made it remarkably better.
Her diligence has been duly rewarded. But even with success, Madonna refuses to let up. During the rehearsals for the Blond Ambition tour, she ran five or so miles a day, worked out with a trainer for an hour or two, rehearsed the concert routines for eight hours, and took hour-long singing lessons. “She has more strength and endurance than anyone I know,” Christopher Ciccone says.
Attitude and ambition. These are what mark Madonna, no matter the changes in her hair, makeup, clothing, music, and acting. During the greedy ’80s, the calculating quality of her needs — for wealth, for power, for acclaim, for love — made her the perfect singer for the decade. Her challenge is to sustain her appeal into the ’90s. If the current incarnations of Madonna don’t work, you can be sure she’ll try something else. And something else. And something else. She’ll keep on trying until she gets it right.
Madonna (1983, Sire) “Lucky Star,” “Borderline,” “Burning Up,” “I Know It,” “Holiday,” “Think of Me,” “Physical Attraction,” “Everybody”
A thin voice and even thinner arrangements: Madonna Lite. Only for dance fans. C-
Like a Virgin (1984, Sire) “Material Girl,” “Angel,” “Like a Virgin,” “Over and Over,” “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore,” “Dress You Up,” “Shoo-Bee-Doo,” “Pretender,” “Stay”
Is she learning how to sing, or are the backing tracks that much better? Still, only worth it for the hits. B-
True Blue (1986, Sire) “Papa Don’t Preach,” “Open Your Heart,” “White Heat,” “Live to Tell,” “Where’s the Party,” “True Blue,” “La Isla Bonita,” “Jimmy Jimmy,” “Love Makes the World Go Round”
As much a pop record as a dance record. She’s thinking some serious thoughts and singing some serious songs. Good when it’s good and not that bad when it’s bad. B+
You Can Dance (1987, Sire) “Spotlight,” “Holiday,” “Everybody,” “Physical Attraction,” “Spotlight (Dub Version),” “Holiday (Dub Version),” “Over and Over,” “Into the Groove,” “Where’s the Party,” “Over and Over (Dub Version),” “Into the Groove (Dub Version)”
One new song, “Spotlight,” and dance remixes of her hits. Includes an extended version of “Into the Groove,” released as the B-side of “Angel” and not on any other album. Vocal tracks: A. Dub tracks (instrumental versions without Madonna’s vocals): D
Like a Prayer (1989, Sire) “Like a Prayer,” “Express Yourself,” “Love Song,” “Till Death Do Us Part,” “Promise to Try,” “Cherish,” “Dear Jessie,” “Oh Father,” “Keep It Together,” “Spanish Eyes,” “Act of Contrition”
Her most personal album yet, with songs about an abusive husband, a lost mother, and a distant father. But she remains true to her core audience as well, with songs you can dance to. A mature and accomplished effort. A-
I’m Breathless: Music From and Inspired by the Film Dick Tracy (1990, Sire) “He’s a Man,” “Sooner or Later,” “Hanky Panky,” “I’m Going Bananas,” “Cry Baby,” “Something to Remember,” “Back in Business,” “More,” “What Can You Lose,” “Now I’m Following You (Part I),” “Now I’m Following You (Part II),” “Vogue”
Singles (not on Madonna albums)
“Crazy for You” (1985, Geffen) From the movie Vision Quest.
“Who’s That Girl” (1987, Sire) “Causing a Commotion” (1987, Sire) Both from the movie Who’s That Girl.
Madonna (1984, WEA, $16.98) You’d think the Queen of Music Vid would have a major collection available, wouldn’t you? But all we have is this paltry sampler — “Burning Up,” “Borderline,” and “Lucky Star” from the first album, and “Like a Virgin” from the second. B
Madonna Live: The Virgin Tour (1985, WEA, $19.98) Live from Detroit, her hometown. A lot of flat notes. Not much dancing. Maybe you had to be there. C-
Madonna Ciao Italia: Live From Italy (1988, WEA, $19.98) She has lost weight. She’s hitting most of the notes. She’s showing some good moves in the dance routines. Hey, she’s back in the old country! B+
A Certain Sacrifice (1980, Commtron, $49.95, R) Is this rape-revenge film art or exploitation? You be the judge.
Vision Quest (1985, Warner, $19.98, R) A high-school-jock movie. Madonna is seen only briefly as a singer in a bar band.
Desperately Seeking Susan (1985, HBO, $19.99, PG-13) In this sly comedy of confused identities, a New Jersey housewife trades places with a shiftless Manhattan tart. Madonna plays the latter with a self-absorption that matches her own.
Shanghai Surprise (1986, Vestron, $79.98, PG-13) It’s just as bad as you’ve heard, and maybe even worse. Madonna is a missionary in ’30s China and Sean Penn is the ne’er-do-well who helps her out. This “mystery-suspense-romance” succeeds on none of its many levels. Madonna’s performance is awkward and forced. Penn, then her husband, is equally bad.
Who’s That Girl (1987, Warner, $19.98, PG) A screw-up of a screwball comedy. Madonna is an ex-con with a score to settle. Griffin Dunne is the stuffed-shirt lawyer who’s mixed up in her shenanigans. Madonna isn’t the worst thing in it, but that’s not saying much.
Bloodhounds of Broadway (1989, RCA/Columbia, $89.95, PG) Did you miss this one about romance during the Roaring Twenties? So did everybody else.
Dick Tracy (1990, Walt Disney Pictures) The comic strip comes to life, costarring Madonna and Warren Beatty. Due June 15.
Speed-the-Plow (1988) Very respectable Broadway debut. Frank Rich of The New York Times praised her “intelligent, scrupulously disciplined comic acting.”
Like a Prayer (Pepsi, 1989) A rich little valentine to childhood dreams. Seen only once, during The Cosby Show, before controversy over the music video for “Like a Prayer” caused Pepsi to fizz over and pull the ad.
© Entertainment Weekly