In the case of Keshishian’s popumentary, getting the control freak to let down her guard was about as easy as persuading Warren Beatty to stop chasing women. The turning-point, he says, came when Madonna gave him permission to film her visiting the grave of her mother, who died of cancer when she was six. He sent his crew in advance to bury a wireless microphone in the soil and position cameras unobtrusively behind trees.
“Alek is really responsible for keeping the focus on me when I would have been happy having it on everybody else.” admits Madonna. “What I truly loved was the dancers and my relationship with them. I just found them so inspiring and entertaining. Really, I would have been perfectly happy to make it about them. In my heart of hearts, I don’t think it’s just a movie about me. It’s a movie about the life of a celebrity, but there’s all these other parallel stories going on.”
To capture the singer and those around her at ease backstage, the director positioned his camera behind a one-way make-up mirror. The crew wore black at all times, and were ordered not to respond to their subject. Each night, he
would log the day’s events on a computer to keep track of the 250 hours of film that he would eventually have to pare down to two.
An unabashed fan who has now become a close friend, Keshishian came to his labour of love unexpectedly. The two share an agent, and he had met Madonna several years ago after she viewed a videotape of his Harvard project. a rock musical adaptation of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. (The director is currently working with record mogul Irving Azoff to develop the project into a feature film with original music.)
While trying to land a feature-directing assignment and sell his first script, Keshishian kept himself busy making music videos for the likes of Elton John and Bobby Brown. But, last spring, he received a surprise call from Madonna. She asked him to join the tour – David Fincher, who had directed the “Vogue” video and who’d been romantically linked with Madonna, having turned the job down.
Like Roger And Me documentarian Michael Moore, Keshishian admits he took certain “liberties” with time and place to create a narrative structure. He even had his crew track down a childhood friend of Madonna’s, Moira McFarlane, and flew her to Washington DC, so he could set up a meeting between the two. “I’m not making a public-service documentary,” he says defensively. “I wanted to make this madcap journey … I had to make certain choices as a film-maker, but those choices were made by me, not her. She never, ever said anything.”
Madonna, Keshishian maintains, gave him free rein to make the movie he wanted. but although she didn’t force him to cut anything out, she did insist he leave in a scene where two of her male dancers French kiss. A strong supporter of Aids charities and gay-rights issues, the singer says she wanted to “shock” audiences out of their homophobia.
MADONNA SAYS THAT some of her advisers have suggested she buy the film back, and fans who don’t wish to see their idol cleaning her nostrils or exposing her tonsils may wish she had. But, never one to shy away from controversy. Madonna sees the movie as a “natural progression” of her work. “I’m not dealing with issues I haven’t dealt with before,” she says, a note of anger rising in her voice. “What am I supposed to do? Retreat and be quiet?
“The hardest part is watching myself,” she continues. “I’m completely scrutinised. This movie is worth five years of psychoanalysis. I really got to know myself and there are some painful moments because I can see where I’m
being withdrawn or guarded with somebody, where I’m being a control freak. I can see all my extreme behaviour, but I can also see my goodness. For a person like me who’s never satisfied with who I am, and who is incredibly critical of myself, it’s good to see that too.”
Although Warren Beatty has a backstage cameo, out-again-in-again lesbian buddy Sandra Bernhard pops in for a chat, and Sean Penn is mentioned a couple of times as “the love of her life”, the movie skirts serious discussion of Madonna’s love life. In fact, Keshishian says he resisted pressure from the film’s Americar distributor, Miramax, to provide more answers in this department. The director also says he didn’t concern himself with how fans or critics would react. His aim was to reveal the persona side of pop stardom – the human side of one a the world’s most famous female Icons.
“For years, Hollywood has operated on the unspoken principle that being a celebrity was about maintaining a certain level of mystery, and revealing the mystery is shattering the myth that you’ve created.” he explains. “But I don’t think this film diminishes who she is. In an odd sort of way, this movie makes her an even greater myth. It’s like if you open a door to a house and you see one room, but realise there are so many other rooms you have no idea about.”
“It will certainly explode the myth of what people think of me.” adds Madonna. “But this is not completely me. This is only a moment in my life. While you get to know me to a certain degree, you don’t know all of me, as you couldn’t know all of anybody in that circumstance. If this was all I was, I’d be completely horrified”
© The Face