LISTEN, LOOK BEYOND CRUCIFIX
May 25, 2006 -- 'THIS IS who I am/You can like it or not/You can love me or leave me 'cause I'm never gonna stop."
So sings Madonna.
FORGET THE crucifix. No, really. It has already become the visual image of Madonna's spectacular (and spectacularly ambitious) "Confessions" concert. But as usual, there is more to M's work than meets the eye. The "blasphemous" sequence, in which she sings "Live to Tell" suspended on a cross, is accompanied by desperate images and dire statistics about children dying of AIDS in Africa. Why the cross? Don't ask M, who'll only tell you her work must speak for itself and she believes in the intelligence and imagination of her audience.
In spite of the crucifix controversy, this show contains some of the great set pieces of Madonna's career. "Music" is transformed into an homage to 1970s disco in general and John Travolta in his white-suited "Saturday Night Fever" persona in particular. This incredible number is worth the exorbitant price of admission. There is her entrance from the ceiling in a giant glitter ball . . . "Like a Virgin" performed in her dominatrix equestrian outfit, playfully gyrating like a 20-year-old on an oversized saddle . . . "Ray of Light" and "I Love New York," display Madonna's impressive guitar licks and her ability to command the stage as a rock-chick extraordinaire. "I Love New York," which is one of the weakest songs on her "Confessions" album, comes alive, thanks to Madonna's ferocious in-the-flesh tackle of it. The sinewy, sometimes androgynous singer/dancer channels Iggy Pop in her angry, defiant "Let It Will Be," and then switches moods instantly with a haunting "Drowned World." Both songs question fame, in a different frame of mind, reflecting Madonna's continuing search for peace within this maelstrom of her own making.
There are the head-scratching moments, numbers that don't come off ("Erotica") and cringe-inducing profanity directed at the president. (Really, at almost 48 years old, there's no need for Madonna to engage in juvenile pandering. Especially as she makes her political point powerfully in a video montage that includes George W. Bush existing side by side with Hitler, Mussolini and other charmers.)
Even if you are not especially a Madonna fan, I defy anybody to watch this woman work for two hours onstage and come away unimpressed. (She is greatly assisted by her incredible troupe of dancers, of whom Daniel "Cloud" Campus and Leroy "Hypnosis" Barnes are standouts. But every single one in her cast is brilliant!)
Madonna is determined to tattoo her vision onto her audience and make them think whether they want to or not. She is equally passionate that her fans get the very best of her, doing what they want to see her do. She sings (live), she dances like time has stopped and surely she never fell off that horse! The star provides an ongoing visual feast; almost too much happens on a Madonna stage (and in her head!). She and director Jamie King are over-fond of the giant visuals that back Madonna and can overwhelm her, but these are often beautiful, and for the fans in the nosebleed seats, they're compensation for watching their idol from a vantage point that reduces her to the size of a postage stamp.
THOUGH THEY seem polar opposites, Madonna and Marlene Dietrich have a lot in common. Marlene also offered herself as fans wanted to see her - encased in sequined gowns, a shimmy here, a hand gesture there. Madonna's act is considerably more athletic, but nonetheless a result of iron stamina, perfectionism, self-love and a professional standard that is out of reach by even the most dedicated performers. Indeed there is an almost Prussian, compulsive work ethic in Madonna's personality.) Old age and infirmity stopped Marlene, and she drew the curtain on her public self. Madonna is still a young woman, but not a youngster. Watching her aerobic intensity, one wonders how much longer she can do it. And why she wants to continue the brutal grind? Why? Because whatever her art and world attention has meant to Madonna, it hasn't altered. She has changed in some ways: married, a mother of two, a devotee of religion, but the great need that propelled her from Michigan to Manhattan way back when is as strong as ever. She wants to be adored - she wants to shock, confound, create, never rest on what has been. She looks to the future. Madonna is consumed by ambition and ego yet sometimes longs to free herself.
"Confessions" - which might be subtitled "I'm Still Here Ha! Ha! Ha!" - isn't a perfect concert, though by the time it reaches N.Y.C. in June, it might be. But it is a perfect showcase for a woman who has imposed her will on the world. And has no intention of loosening her grip.
ONE OF the happiest people at Madonna's concert was pal Rosie O'Donnell, loaded down with camera equipment. It was her first time out with a digital camera; she usually prefers old-fashioned film - "I love that darkroom smell!" Rosie compared notes with celeb lensman Kevin Mazur, much loved for his talent and good manners. Rosie has long documented Madonna's concerts. "I send her scrapbooks. I figure when we're both 80 we'll be in rocking chairs, going, 'Ah, remember the "Confessions" tour, honey?' "
Maybe. But I have a feeling M will be on her "Madonna 80: Ready, Willing and Still Able" tour.