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Strike a Pose: 'Truth or Dare,' 25 Years Later

By Akiva Gottlieb

Courtesy of Miramax Films.

In 1990, Alek Keshishian was an unknown 26-year old music video director when the most famous woman in the world decided to get in touch. "I literally picked up the phone and heard: 'Hi, it's Madonna.' As if that's the most normal call you could get."

She told him she liked the way he filmed dancers. "Four days later, I was on my way to Japan."

What was supposed to be a trip to collect backstage footage for an HBO special about Madonna's groundbreaking "Blond Ambition" tour turned into Truth or Dare, a multilayered concert film that became one of the highest-grossing documentaries of all time - at the time, only Michael Wadleigh's Woodstock had grossed higher. Returning to New York's Metrograph theater for a weeklong 25th anniversary run through September 1, the film is an essential timestamp of American celebrity culture, anticipating the simulated "total access" and 24/7 brand management of TMZ and reality television by at least a decade.

Though Madonna commissioned the documentary ("Against the advice of every single person in her life," says Keshishian) and served as executive producer, she willingly relinquished editorial control over the final product. It shows. Brash, opinionated and never less than completely captivating, the onscreen Madonna also comes across as manipulative and callous; in one notorious scene, she laughs when hearing that her makeup artist had been raped.

Keshishian had control of the final cut, but says this technicality "was completely not necessary." The Material Girl didn't mind exposing her temporary bouts of bad behavior. "There wasn't a single thing that Madonna and I disagreed on. To be honest, my biggest thing was placating her when I had to cut things out."

Alek Keshishian and Madonna. Courtesy of Miramax Films.

Despite the obvious imbalance of power, Keshishian wasn't particularly surprised by the lack of interference. "What Truth or Dare showed was a woman in complete control of her life, with a depth that maybe some people didn't expect," he observes. "Some people hated her more after the movie, but I think she was OK with that because they knew her more, so at least their hatred was based on something."

Truth or Dare intersperses lush full-color concert sequences with black-and-white 16mm backstage footage, and the movie is deliberately coy about the boundaries between artifice and artlessness; it's all performance. Contemporary viewers conditioned by the theatricalized reality of Keeping Up with the Kardashians probably wouldn't bat an eye, but in 1991 Madonna's boundary-blurring struck some as scandalous. In the Chicago Reader, Bill Wyman called the film "the most baldly manipulative and scarily dishonest piece of propaganda to be recorded on celluloid since at least the Reagan campaign's 'Morning in America' commercials and possible since Triumph of the Will."

Keshishian understands the impulse to separate fact from fiction, but, he notes, "Most people got it wrong, including The New York Times. What they thought was staged, versus what they thought was authentic, was completely in reverse. A lot of the moments in the film when your critical mind might go, 'Oh, come on, this is just for the cameras'…wasn't, in my opinion - and other moments were."

There's an unscripted vérité scene in Truth or Dare that seems to chronicle a major generational shift. After the pop star declines to speak to her doctor off-camera, her then-boyfriend Warren Beatty - the very embodiment of 1970s-era American stardom - grouses, "She doesn't want to live off-camera, much less talk. There's nothing to say off-camera. Why would you want to say something if it's off-camera? What point is there existing?"

At the time, The New York Times review commented that "Mr. Beatty emerges as the voice of sanity, at least for a moment or two." In hindsight, he couldn't look more out of touch.

How did Keshishian convince the clearly reluctant Beatty to appear onscreen? "I didn't. What she did - which was the ultimate form of courage - was she allowed us to put signs everywhere in the entrances to where she might be, which said 'by entering here you agree to allow the filming of yourself…' - all that legalese. That was everywhere around her dressing room, and it was also on the door of her apartment. She was really single-minded: 'This is the project that I'm doing, and if you want to be part of it, great; if not, then sorry.'"

Though Keshishian has had a conspicuously sparse career as a director since the success of his debut, he's worked on a few other projects with Madonna. She recorded the hit theme song for his campus comedy With Honors, and he co-wrote her directorial debut W.E. "She's still a friend," he says. "We've had kind of an interesting journey."

Courtesy of Miramax Films.

In retrospect, Keshishian feels "spoiled" by Madonna's confidence in his talent. "I've never worked with anybody else who was more effective for me as a director," he maintains. "In my first movie, I felt like this all-powerful person because I had such an immediate relationship with her. If my producers were like, 'We can't afford a second Louma crane for the concert,' I would ask, 'OK, well, how much is that gonna cost?' And they'd say $6,000, and I would march to Madonna's dressing room and I'd go, 'M, I need another $6,000 for another Louma crane,' and she'd look at me and go, 'WHY?' And I'd go, 'To make you look better.' And she'd go: 'OK!' I'm not trying to be glib about it, but that kind of trust is ultimately what that film is about."

Madonna is the central character and raison d'etre behind Truth or Dare, but for much of the film, Keshishian trains his camera on her outspoken, expressive troupe of backup dancers, many of them openly gay in an era of widespread AIDS paranoia. "I found their stories really fascinating," he says. "There were these flamboyant guys, definitely on the fringe, but after interviewing them I felt this compassion for them, what they had survived to get there, and I realized that mirrored what Madonna had survived to get there. That, to me, was always the foundation of this film. The Fellini family, with this over-the-top woman and these kind of over-the-top Felliniesque kids."

According to the new documentary Strike a Pose, which premiered at Tribeca this year (and which Keshishian hasn't yet seen), Truth or Dare overlooked or obscured some of the more tragic elements of the dancers' stories. Though Madonna's music rejected sexual inhibition and compelled listeners to "Express Yourself," several of her dancers were hiding their HIV-positive status and dealing with intense feelings of shame. Three dancers ended up suing Madonna for invasion of privacy and financial compensation after the film's release.

For Keshishian, the film's spectacular amalgam of fact and fiction, ego-stroking and intimate confession, would be impossible to replicate today. "I think that nowadays, celebrities aren't looking to make Truth or Dare," he maintains. "They're looking to make additional product that supports their very finely tuned brand. So whether it's Beyonce or Justin or Katy Perry, ultimately it is exactly what the stars want to project. And weirdly, as much as it was accused of this,.Truth or Dare didn't. Madonna was fine with it, but she didn't curate it. People feel that difference even if they can't put their finger on it."

Akiva Gottlieb is the IDA's Communications Manager, and has written for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The Nation.