Madame X, Madonna‘s 14th studio album, debuted at the top of the Billboard charts upon its June 2019 release, and the seven-time Grammy winner supported it with a 75-date jaunt through North America and Europe that concluded in March 2020, right before the onset of COVID-19. That tour instituted a strict “no phones” policy for its audiences, so the concert film Madame X (Paramount+), based around the shows in Madonna’s ex-pat home of Lisbon, Portugal, should have immediate visual and sonic appeal for fans of the iconic performer.
MADAME X: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: “Artists are here to disturb the peace,” goes the James Baldwin quote, and Madonna seizes on that call to action — to testify, to bear witness, to force people to look — as the launch point for her Madame X stage show. As a video montage presents different versions of Madonna, her voice over posits the myriad roles of a woman in society: “dancer, professor, a head of state, a housekeeper, an equestrian, a prisoner, a student, a mother, a child, a teacher, a nun, a singer, a saint, a whore…a spy in the house of love.” And with that, the first sequence begins, a medley of the strident Madame X track God Control cut with Human Nature from the 1994 album Bedtime Stories. Marching, dancing cops with police shields are gradually replaced onstage by a group of women with raised fists (“I’m not sorry…”), a group that includes Madonna’s young twin daughters Stella and Estere, and the entire thing organically shifts into an a capella, audience-participating retelling of Express Yourself from 1989’s Like A Prayer. That’s a 30-year span of disturbing the peace in the space of 20 minutes.
From there, the Madame X show rolls into another classic, Vogue, which finds Madonna fashioning herself as a kind of secret agent in a Broadway noir, with lots of trench coats and typewriters and the omnipresent Madame X eyepatch. There are stretches of audience interaction interspersed, too, either with Madonna engaging in a bit of Storytellers-style essaying of her motivations for the Madame X material, or lighter moments, one of which involves the singer suddenly sitting in the front row with Dave Chappelle. (The two profess their adoration for each other’s work.) The fado-inspired portion of the Madame X album involves the transformation of the stage into a lively Portuguese street/cafe scene, and before long Killers Who Are Partying spins into the Ray of Light standout Frozen, which features Madonna singing before a video projection of a dance routine performed by her daughter Lourdes Leon.
At long last, Madame X rolls into Like A Prayer. It’s the concert film’s penultimate moment, with a song that’s always reveled in gospel fervor but here burns with a renewed fire. Madonna, fronting the requisite live gospel choir, sports the Mad X eyepatch over a priest’s cossack adorned with bedazzled crucifixes. When Madonna finally says goodnight, it’s with a stroll through the audience and a call for “Power to the people!”
What Movies Will It Remind You Of? “The most controversial thing I’ve ever done,” Madonna says defiantly at the outset of Madame X, “is to stick around.” It’s a statement of purpose that recalls the tagline of Madonna: Truth or Dare, the landmark 1991 documentary which supposed that “The ultimate Dare is to tell the Truth.” And in its most strident passages, particularly during God Control and I Rise, Madame X challenges the harsh dogmas of American political policy and its relationship with guns, a stance that aligns it with The Price of Freedom, Judd Ehrlich’s recent documentary about the radicalization of the National Rifle Association.
Performance Worth Watching: After parading through the aisles of the theater by way of a grand entrance, the women of Orquestra Batukadeiras join Madonna onstage with their drums and surging Creole harmonies for a performance of the Madame X song Batuka. It’s a moment rich with tradition, percussion, and the linkages of empowerment across cultures and generations.
Memorable Dialogue: The stage banter is actually pretty lively in Madame X. On the one hand, Madonna strikes notes of poignancy and pride when she speaks after Orquestra Batukadeiras’s appearance. “I’m so proud to know these women,” she says, “who represent the strength of being female, not only for Cabo Verde, but also for women all around the world.” But on the other hand, Maddy can also be a stage-savvy nightclub ham, chatting with the audience while quick-changing her costume. “It’s very hard to hear with one eye,” wisecracks the eyepatch-clad Madame X.
Sex and Skin: Flickering bits of how Madonna has represented herself visually throughout her career periodically appear in supercut format, and sometimes — 1992’s Sex book, the Justify My Love imagery — there’s very little left to the imagination.
Our Take: When it’s all said and done, the creative scope of Madame X is its most impressive thing. What begins with the turgid image-casting of a smoldering American flag and dancers being arrested by performative riot police, the disco rhythms of God Control becoming muzzled by the assaultive atmosphere, downshifts effortlessly into the uplift of Express Yourself, and before you know it Madonna is chatting with the assembled, adoring audience like the most popular kid in school holding court at a lock-in. Lighter moments pop up later in the set, too, like a colorful, multicultural throwdown during the Madame X track Come Alive. But Madonna always keeps her chosen frame in sight — “Artists are here to disturb the peace” — and with the set closer I Rise, she pledges to “give voice to all marginalized people,” raising another fist in the charged atmosphere of social justice movements. Madonna’s wide range of catalog music becomes a strengthening pylon undergirding her work for Madame X; rather than becoming some kind of one-note diatribe, the set’s serious platforms are supported by the joy, groove, and nostalgia represented in songs like Express Yourself or Vogue.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Madame X mixes high-concept, artfully constructed performance sequences with a level of personality and access that a star as image-conscious as Madonna has rarely afforded her viewing audience.