Backing singers are rarely name-checked, let alone
encouraged to let their own personalities shine alongside that of the star
they’re supporting. So the fact that an extraordinarily gifted group of male
dancers was front and centre of Madonna’s acclaimed and controversial Blond
Ambition Tour of 1990, and the accompanying backstage documentary “Truth or
Dare,” was incredibly significant.
For the seven dancers — six gay, one straight — who were
plucked from obscurity by Madonna herself, this was a life-changing experience.
But it was also, inevitability, short-lived. Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan’s
very touching documentary “Strike a Pose” considers two things: the complicated, even messy
reality behind that heady moment — backstage of the backstage, if you like — and what happens to those left behind when the superstar and her spotlight have
Twenty-five years after the tour, the directors have found
six of the seven dancers (one has passed away) and given Luis Camacho, Oliver
Crumes III, Salim Gauwloos, Jose Gutierez, Kevin Stea, and Carlton Wilborn the
chance to reflect; moreover, the film offers them an opportunity that Madonna
didn’t: to speak for themselves.
Creatively, the singer couldn’t have been more generous in
1990. As Carlton recounts, her primary instruction was “Give me more of
you.” At the same time, the themes that the star chose to express through
the tour, film and surrounding media circus — gay rights, freedom of expression
and the fight against AIDS — came with a sting in the tail for those alongside
her, who were less keen than their boss to push buttons, or to have their own
sexuality brandished in the media.
On top of
that, some of their number were living, secretly, with HIV. One clever sleight
of hand by Gould and Zwann is to show Madonna’s on-stage speech about her late
friend Keith Haring, who had recently died of AIDS, urging listeners to “face
the truth together,” then later in the film to return to the same clip, this time
with Salim’s commentary, pointing out the evident discomfort on his face as he
was standing next to her.
suggests that while Madonna may not have outed her dancers, their presence
certainly fueled her agenda, whether they liked it or not. They were and
remain role models of self-expression for many gay people, but this came
with a price.
Dare” was followed by lawsuits, for different reasons, and a gradual
distancing between Madonna and her dancers, and between the dancers themselves.
Life for them after such heady fame has had its share of difficulties and
Neither these engaging men (now in their forties) nor the
filmmakers themselves seem overly interested in pointing fingers. In many
respects, “Strike a Pose” is a celebration of a brilliantly creative
and formative period, for all concerned. It seems undisputed, too, that during
the tour a genuine, quasi-family bond developed, with Madonna — who had barely
turned 30 herself at the time — becoming a mother figure to her handsome boys.
Was she striking a pose? We can only ask her.