“Madame X,” the new Madonna concert film, opens with a montage of some of the pop superstar’s most legendary performances, music videos, and shock-theater provocations: the infamous moments from the MTV Video Music Awards, the transgressive S&M imagery and Gaultier fashion, the tabloid headlines like “What a Tramp” and “Madonna Has No Shame” (how quaint in the age of Instagram!), the on-cue outrage from the Catholic Church. The film closes with a montage of oppressed people and groups from around the world set to Madonna’s onstage performance of “I Rise,” a song about the powerless standing up to fight the power. The opening montage reminds you of the impassioned and sometimes scandalous effusiveness of Madonna in her heyday; each clip gives off a buzz. The final montage is earnest to a fault, and the song, while working overtime to be an anthem, is serviceable and far from ecstatic. (I don’t think it would inspire many people to rise.)
In “Madame X,” we see Madonna toggling between two poles: the self-mythologizing pop enchantress and the regally committed savior of the masses. She tries to morph, seamlessly, from one to the other, playing up the idea that “artists are there to disturb the peace,” and evoking how much she has always been attacked for doing that very thing. Early on, she sits at a desk onstage, typing out a lengthy quote from James Baldwin, and by the end she has repeated the silhouetted typing number so often that we get the point: She herself is an artist just like Baldwin. Certainly, there’s a political dimension to Madonna’s art. At her height, she was a revolutionary, changing the possibilities for women, smashing more than a few ceilings to do so. For those of us who adore her, in song after song her passion and her message are inseparable. But one other thing that’s inseparable from those two things used to be her joy.
“Madame X,” on the joy scale, feels drained. The show is a concert that plays, at times, like a lecture — or maybe the world’s most extended Oscar/Grammy star-makes-a-statement speech. But I don’t say that because I begrudge Madonna’s message. It’s just that she didn’t use to be so deadly serious and, at times, almost punitive about it.
Madonna, at her height, is one of the greatest live performers I’ve ever seen. She has put on transcendent shows, and the last time I saw her in concert, on the Confessions Tour in 2006 at Madison Square Garden, the show was held together by a rapture that was a form of reverence — her belief in life as a disco dream. But the mood of “Madame X” is quite different. It was filmed in January 2020 during Madonna’s six-night stand at the Coliseu dos Recreios in Lisbon, Portugal, as part of her 11th concert tour, which marked the first time she had played in theaters and smaller venues since the 1985 Like a Virgin tour. Given that, you might expect that she’d be striving for a newly intimate connection with her audience. But the Madonna we see in “Madame X,” wearing robed layers and, for a while, a black eyepatch with a bejeweled X at the center of it, is an imperious figure: a film-noir diva alter ego (code name: Madame X), stern and formidable, demanding of her sway in the universe.
Her feminism has evolved. She now presents herself as part of a collective, a larger women’s consciousness, and as a mother in every sense — the mother of her children, but also the mother of a movement away from the entrapment of male attitudes. In a sense, she’s been singing about that her whole career, but now it’s more explicit, more pointed. She’s a “freedom fighter,” she tells us, “but fighting for freedom comes with a price, as we all know.” She lets us feel the price. Though she’s still striving, in theory, to have a good time, she comes off as a tad defensive, as if people were still unfairly attacking her, and all the years of it had gotten to her. But I don’t recall Madonna being persecuted in recent times for letting her erotic freak flag fly. The culture is now freakier than she is, and the biggest change in her career is that she’s no longer center stage.
Let’s be brutally honest: The songs from the 2019 album “Madame X” lack the X factor. The movie opens with “God Control,” which has a monotonous groove, and features Madonna filtered through excessive autotune (“We’ve got to wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up…”). The second song, “Dark Ballet,” with its sample from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, is better, if only because onstage it features wood nymphs in animal heads with gas-mask eyes. But then Madonna does “Human Nature,” from “Bedtime Stories,” and the concert springs to life. It’s a song I’ve always heard as her explicit answer to David Letterman — to the atrocious way he treated her during her appearance on his show in March 1994, when he wielded his uptightness like a nightstick.
In “Madame X,” the song is beautifully staged, with a trumpet out of an old Fine Young Cannibals track, a female chorus, a set that’s like Caligari by Escher, and scolding finger shadows on the wall. The number seethes more than ever, as Madonna turns its ultimate line (“I’m not your bitch don’t lay your shit on me”) into a mantra. It’s followed by “Vogue,” which features a collection of Madonna clones on stage, in Ray-Bans and platinum hair and trench coats, and you’re struck, more than ever, by what a gorgeous song it is — a reminder, through its celebration of the liberating aesthetics of drag balls, of the faith that echoed through the ’90s.
But those are rare high points in “Madame X,” which keeps getting pulled into a kind of didactic austerity. I seriously don’t mean to pillory Madonna on the greatness of her past work, but a song like “I Don’t Search I Find,” with its one-chord ostinato, could be retitled “Confessions of Tedium on a Dance Floor.” The song has no hook! As the movie goes on, the feeling it gives you is that for Madonna, art has become all about weighing the dynamics of power. And that has dampened her showbiz instincts.
At one point, she brings on an ensemble of Batuque singer-dancers from Cape Verde, and as she joins their traditional performance, the number gives off a glow. But she segues from that into several songs done in a Latin idiom (much of “Madame X” was recorded in Lisbon, where Madonna had moved in 2017 so that her son could find the ideal soccer club — we should all have such revolutionary options), and the truth is that the songs are nondescript. That goes even for a reworked “La Isla Bonita” (one of my favorite Madonna songs) that here becomes a “one two cha-cha-cha” banality. Madonna’s art has always been about a great many things: sex, romance, danger, kink, womanhood, defiance, the impulse to express yourself, the right to be — and, more than anything, what holds all of that together: the euphoria of pop music. In “Madame X,” there are bits of euphoria, but they take a back seat to something more grounded: the lure of purpose. Frankly, the euphoria served more purpose.