An impressively designed production from a star hoping to convey the deep empathy she feels for pretty much every group suffering during these troubled times, Madonna’s Madame X showcases the eponymous album, in which she draws on new influences ranging from Colombian rap to Portuguese fado. An uncharitable observer might dub this The Appropriation Tour, aligning a star whose relevance has faded with both unimpeachably authentic music and the in-the-streets energy of social justice movements. But wherever one draws the line between supporting a group and co-opting it, X captures a night of solid performances and top-notch stagecraft. Just don’t show up if you’re looking to hear the old stuff.
After an introductory montage tying the secret agent-like Madame X persona to the scandals provoked by the real-life Madonna (best bit: “The most controversial thing I have ever done is to stick around”), things kick off with a very peculiar disclaimer: “Don’t forget — none of this is real.”
That’s peculiar because, for much of the next two hours, Madonna works so hard to remind us of things that most certainly are real: war, climate change, out-of-control policing and racial injustice, to name just a few. There’ll be no Holiday here, folks, but there will be James Baldwin quotes, pounded out on a typewriter while a Black man mimes being gunned down.
And there will be the pop star, singing God Control in militaristic garb inspired by the Revolutionary War, pushing back against a modern-day police riot shield. Or, during the next song, shouting “Death to the patriarchy!” as a faux cop hauls her away.
Leading a quite large cast of dancers, singers and musicians who are nearly entirely people of color, Madonna leaves most of the dancing to others: Her moves are constrained and sometimes stiff compared to her fluid and energetic co-stars; multiple times, the movie all but forgets her as it gives us a look, sometimes via prerecorded footage, at an unidentified soloist with some real choreography to show off. (In scenes with more than a couple of dancers, the editing is usually too fast, and the shots framed too closely, to do justice to choreographers’ use of the stage.)
Sometimes the backup staging gets awkward. Of all the politically minded songs here, the 1995 single Human Nature is the one best suited to her, full of mock apologies (“Oops, I didn’t know I couldn’t talk about sex!”) addressing her actual life and career. It’s a song that a wide variety of people might embrace, and there’s a bite, here, to seeing Black women dance to the words “I’m not your bitch, don’t hang your shit on me.” That bite is undercut, though, when those dozens of Black women and girls are lined up in formation behind one white woman, who makes a show of handing the mike off to youngsters just long enough for them to toss out a slogan or hashtag. It’s the cringiest moment in a night with a few of them.
What exactly is this “Madame X” thing? Ziggy Stardust had a story and a rather memorable anthem; Mme. X is introduced only as a list of identities, ranging from “professor” and “prisoner” to “nun” and, um, “equestrian.” Fans who will admit to finding the persona’s everything-to-everyone-ness tiresome may be pleased to see that the star does too: She sheds the character’s signature eye patch early on, griping that it’s uncomfortable, before slapping it back on later when required. But the look and air of mystery work well in a couple of numbers, including a delightfully glammed-up Vogue (everyone clad in shades, black trench coats and blond wigs) and I Don’t Search I Find, when the screen goes B&W to watch our heroine being interrogated by men in fedoras.
Things relax later, as the backdrop changes to evoke a large house hosting a fado club. The ensemble’s instrumentalists (and arrangers) go a long way here, creating an atmosphere that nearly smooths out the mishmash of international styles Madonna’s latest record borrows from. Still, when she brings out a troupe of drummer-singers from Cape Verde and uses them as a bed for a song that makes their rhythms feel monotonous, one wishes she’d just leave the stage for a bit and let them do their own material.
Even when the intended meaning of a particular number isn’t clear, stagings are almost invariably eye-grabbing; despite being nearly two hours long (and weighted toward lesser material), the visual variety keeps one’s attention from wandering. This will likely be the last we hear from Madame X. But given the response we see from the crowd, Madonna herself can probably keep coming back for as long as she wants.