This year, Madonna’s Truth Or Dare documentary celebrates its 30th anniversary. When it first came out, it was considered too controversial for the eyes of a little girl like me. I only managed to watch it a few years later, at the tender age of eleven. This is what I learned.
In 1991 Madonna released Truth Or Dare. Rather tellingly, there hasn’t been anything like that film since. There have been supossedly tell-all music documentaries, promising an unfiltered backstage access. Yet all of these productions, from Katy Perry’s Part Of Me (2012) to Beyonce’s beautifully produced HOMECOMING (2013), are carefully curated. While Lady Gaga seems to openly share intimate moments of chronic pain and grief in Gaga: Five Foot Two (2017), and Metallica’s Somekind Of Monster (2004) unexpectedly turns into a raw portrayal of a band struggling with alcohol and mental health issues, there is nothing quite like Madonna’s Truth Or Dare.
Directed by Alek Keshishian, Truth Or Dare — or In Bed With Madonna, as it was known outside the UK — holds little back, portraying Madonna at the time she re-invented music concerts, during the Blond Ambition tour, turning live shows into what we are used to seeing today.
On stage, Madonna was unashamadely sexual. Backstage, via this documentary, we see her as equal parts demanding and nurturing. She is controversally funny with an Evian bottle, and shares questionable jokes with an unpologetic giggle. We also see her topless. The film is so unfiltered, — “unhealhty” by Warren Beatty’s standards — that any of today’s popstars would avoid appearing as unlikeable as Madonna comes accross in certain scenes.
However, what makes Truth Or Dare quite unique is that it was less about Madonna, and more about the world she inhabited at the time. The people around her take central stage, especially, her troupe of dancers. Mostly gay, we are shown their intimate moments of fun and gossiping, and their vulnerability holding a minute of silence during a Pride march. The film also shows two of them kissing.
I drank it all up, age eleven.
Back in 1991, I lived in a conservative Andalusian town. At that time, Madonna made headlines in a way no one really does now. If she had a new video out, it was on the 3 o’clock national news, and again, on the evening edition. If she toured, her concerts were shown on TV.
There was so mych hype around Truth Or Dare, that one of my closest friends wondered whether we should go to an early afternoon showing of the film. We could go straight after school, in our nun-like uniforms, and tell our parents we were out roller-skating. Neither of us looked older than our real ages, we didn’t even resemble teenagers. But this was Spain, and accessing a film with a grown-up rating wasn’t an impossible feat. Our biggest worry was being spotted by someone who knew our parents. Since the film was being shown at a local cinema, the risk of being named and shamed proved too great, so we actually went roller-skating.
But that’s not the end of this story.
My love for Madonna was so widely known that, since the age of six, my British relatives gifted me with tapes, CDs and any merchandise of the italo-american star. The only dolls that interested me were the ones wearing an outfit resembling something Madonna had worn.
I celebrated my eleventh birthday at my grandparents home in Sidcup, outside of London. Early in the party, my Grandad walked in with a boot-sale find: a VHS copy of Truth Or Dare. My grin was so huge, my eyes widened so greatly, that my father quickly grabbed the videotape, inspecting its cover: “I don’t know if this is something you should watch”. Luckily, he hadn’t read the detailed reviews I had, and knew nothing of the controversy, other than it featured Madonna. He handed it over to me, and I held the tape tightly to my chest. I spent hours staring at its cover.
Back in Spain, it took me a while to watch the documentary, since it was something I had to do alone. Watching the Blond Ambition show live on TV had already been a dreadful experience, with my father and one of his mates repeatedly calling Madonna a whore during her infamous, albeit stunning performance of Like A Virgin.
So what did I learn watching Madonna’s Truth Or Dare?
Excuse my bluntness, but I learnt about blowjobs. I watched Madonna fellating an Evian bottle, somewhat fascinated, somewhat shocked, yet tickled by her bravado. I may have rewinded* the tape a few tapes to ensure I got a good look.
I learnt every step of the Express Yourself choreography and when I was twenty, I recreated it on stage, in front of two hundred of my fellow college students.
I also learnt the Vogue dance routine, and performed it, aged 11, with a bunch of friends, during the festivities honouring the patron saint of our Catholic school. The nuns complimented me on my lip-synching skills. My father was unimpressed by our choice of clothing, and make-up.
Through Truth Or Dare I saw men kissing men for the first time, tongues and all, and I caught a glimpse of the complexity of life, love and sex. Not only was it OK for a man to fancy another man, it was cause for celebration. For weeks after watching the documentary I repeated the words “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it”, and knew it was about a faction of society I knew very little about, but one with whom I’d be forever linked.
Madonna permeated my entire childhood, and teenage years. Because of her, my parents never had to explain the birds and the bees to me. I remember my mother asking “you don’t have any questions do you?”, knowing I regularly chanted the most explicit lyrics by Prince — “…a little box with a mirror and a tongue inside, what she told me then got me so hot, I knew that we could slide” and Madonna, just to wind her up.
After watching Truth Or Dare, I didn’t turn into a “whore”. I did hear that word a lot, but directed at Madonna whenever I told a boy I liked her.
Truth Or Dare didn’t make me want to chase boys or walk around in my underwear. It made me a fan and wannabe protector of gay culture. I corrected my father — causing my mum to raise a troubled eyebrow, worried I’d anger him — whenever he used a derogatory word to refer to any of my more affeminate male friends. Madonna’s Truth Or Dare turned me into an ally.
To this day, it remains my favourite music documentary.
*rewind, retro innit?