Despite a debilitating knee injury, Madge continues to strive for perfection
Though Madame X is billed as a “documentary film” and a “concert documentary”, it’s really a concert film – albeit a highly stylised and beautifully executed one. If you’re expecting backstage footage of Madonna grappling with the knee injury that sometimes interrupted 2019-2020’s Madame X tour, you’ll be disappointed. But if you want to see the pop queen reinvent her live show with an even more devil-may-care attitude, it definitely delivers.
That knee injury had already forced Madonna to cancel several shows before Madame X was filmed in Lisbon in January 2020, but she doesn’t appear to be struggling here. Admittedly, it doesn’t feature as many high-octane dance routines as a typical Madonna gig, but this seems by design rather than necessity. The singer was so keen to make her latest theatre tour a more “intimate experience” than previous arena-filling juggernauts that she even banned audience members from using their phones. With 48 performers on the payroll, it’s hardly a stripped back affair, but Madonna is probably as accessible as she can be at this point in her career. During one interlude, she takes a polaroid selfie on stage, then sells it off to the highest bidder.
We also see Madonna interacting with a famous friend who attended one of the Lisbon gigs: comedian Dave Chappelle. Sadly, it’s pretty jarring to watch this longtime LGBTQ ally enjoy a mutual love-in with someone who has just branded himself “team TERF” in a Netflix special. Still, it’s a brief blip in a film that captures the sensory thrills of the ‘Madame X’ tour, if not necessarily its intimacy. Because it keeps cutting between footage of Madonna on stage and the tour’s pre-recorded video segments, we can take in her artistic vision, but don’t see the singer herself as closely as we might.
The film begins with a James Baldwin quote Madonna is fond of – “artists are here to disturb the peace” – then follows the singer’s eyepatch-wearing Madame X character as she barrels through her own vague but effective version of this. It’s a wilfully provocative mix of politics and pussy jokes as she underlines her feminist credentials by singing Express Yourself a cappella and pledges her allegiance to numerous marginalised groups on Killers Who Are Partying, a clunky track from the ‘Madame X’ album. Fortunately, she also performs superior Madame X songs like the stylish house bop I Don’t Search I Find and a more generous smattering of classic hits than she is generally associated with. A heartfelt rendition of Frozen accompanied by black-and-white footage of Madonna’s daughter Lourdes Leon is a strikingly poignant highlight.
Though this film doesn’t acknowledge it, grinding through a lengthy tour with a painful injury must have been traumatic for a performer who’s famously a perfectionist. Madame X feels like an opportunity to end the experience on a positive and empowered note. Throughout Madame X, Madonna is in total command of the stage as she follows her own mantra: “Don’t go for second best, baby.”