A frank on-and-off-stage record of Madonna’s Blond Ambition World Tour, 1991’s “Truth or Dare” invited controversy for numerous reasons — not least the conspicuously out-and-proud image presented by her male dancers, who underlined a sex-positive, diversity-embracing message many weren’t quite ready for at the height of the AIDS epidemic. A quarter-century later, a new documentary from directors Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan, “Strike a Pose,” checks back in with the surviving performers, weighing both the iconic value the original film imbued them with as representatives of the gay community, and their individual struggles afterward.
There’s undeniable curiosity value to the subject. But once its flashback aspects are exhausted, “Pose” doesn’t prove all that revealing or substantial, its last third feeling like a padded over-stretch of thin material. Nonetheless, pic will be a must-see for many veteran Madonna fans, with gay fest dates and home format sales assured; theatrical prospects look more marginal.
Early going makes heavy use of still-exciting footage from Alek Keshishian’s original feature — the highest-grossing documentary ever to that point — intercutting between the protagonists now and then. They’ve aged variably well, but in spectacular color “Ambition” excerpts (offstage sequences were shot in black-and-white), they’re all youthful sinew, line and attitude. Luis Camacho and Jose Gutierez were plucked directly from New York’s “House Ball” underground to help choreograph Madonna’s David Fincher-directed “Vogue” music video. Kevin Stea was a showbiz professional hired late (reportedly replacing a fired dancer) as dance captain.
Others answered an audition ad for “FIERCE male dancers” familiar with then-current street styles (“Wimps and Wanna-bees need not apply!”). All had some formal training, the sole exception (and sole heterosexual) being New Orleans-raised hiphop dancer Oliver Crumes. Carlton Wilborn and Belgian emigre Salim Gauwloos brought model-handsome hauteur to the mix, while boyish Gabriel Trupin was the “unofficial favorite child” of the seven. Technical perfection wasn’t sought so much as the individual style and personality each had in spades.
The docu’s first 25 minutes convey the whirlwind of a tour that fell at (and came to define) the peak of the star’s world domination, complete with news-making accusations of obscenity and blasphemy at various stops. (Defending outre stage uses of sexuality and religion, Madonna is seen on TV shrugging, “If you keep putting something in someone’s face, then maybe they can eventually come to terms with it.”) She’d lost a lot of friends to AIDS, and her gay-positive, pro-safer-sex stance was unquestionably sincere. So was the friendship and “motherly instinct” she directed toward her dancers, according to them. Even now, none have a bad word to say about her — at least within “Pose’s” 85 minutes.
Afterward, the men found themselves famous, particularly within the gay community, but few were well-equipped to handle it, and several were already secretly dealing with HIV-positive status. Depression, alcoholism, drug addiction, even homelessness figured among their post-tour nadirs. Most traumatized was Trupin, who famously French-kissed Salim on a “dare” in the film but later sued Madonna basically over being “ashamed and caught off-guard” (according to his still-angry mother Sue) by that highly public depiction, then died of AIDS in 1995. Stea and Crumes also sued, though pic does a poor job articulating their separate reasons, and leaves unaddressed the suit’s eventual outcome.
No doubt largely as a result of that unpleasant legal aftermath, Madonna is MIA in non-archival footage here. But even without input from her, Kershishian or other fellow tour personnel, “Pose” might’ve achieved greater depth had it shown more interest in its subjects beyond their ties to “Truth or Dare.” Apart from substance-abuse confessions and other lurid lowlights, we find out almost nothing about their subsequent careers or personal lives. And while they talk a lot about the intense “family” bond forged during “Blond Ambition,” their staged reunion at the one-hour mark makes it appear none have bothered staying in touch for decades.
By the time we see them playing “truth or dare” anew over dinner, “Strike a Pose” begins to feel like a rather flimsy, gimmicky exploitation rather than a thoughtful exploration of a shared, shining-moment-in-the-spotlight past. A climactic latter-day dance montage strikes a triumphant I-will-survive note, yet the film hasn’t really earned that inspirational tenor.