Madonna’s Madame X: our review of the concert Film
Madonna is coming back with a new concert Film today, October 8 on Paramount+ and MTV. ‘Madame X‘ captures the Queen’s 2019-2020 Theatre tour filmed in Lisbon and Paris for the most part, as well including footage from the US and London’s shows. Written and produced by Madonna herself & directed by Ricardo Gomes and SKNX, Madame X takes you on a journey of musical extravaganza, exploring the Portuguese scene of Fado, taking you on a trip to Medellín and grooving you to Cape Verde with the magic of Batuka, Morna and Funana.
We had the amazing opportunity to watch the ‘Madame X’ Film in advance and to accept the official screener for press and reviewers on September 30. During this week, we had the chance to see the Film multiple times to clear our thoughts and work on our review and, as requested by the screener embargo, we are happy to be finally able to share it today!
Let’s get into the details…
As we revealed before on here, the movie starts (after the MTV Entertainment Studios intro) with a new version of the ‘Manifesto of Madame X‘, but with a twist; Instead of the usual ‘World of Madame X‘ (available on Amazon Prime Video and YouTube) recap, we find clips from various Madonna music videos, live performances, news headlines and even 2013’s Secret Project, directed by Madonna and Steven Klein; In particular we find snippets of the ‘Erotica‘, ‘Justify My Love‘, ‘Human Nature‘ music videos, as well as ‘Holy Water‘ from Madonna’s 2015 Rebel Heart Tour, ‘Like A Virgin‘ from the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards and ‘Like A Virgin‘ from the 1990 Blond Ambition Tour live performances, as well as many more memorable shots. A background of ‘I Don’t Search I Find (Honey Dijon Remix) plays, with gun shots and heartbeat sounds.
‘The most controversial thing I have ever done is to stick around’ Madonna recites as the stage lights up with an X projected into the theatre’s red curtain, before welcoming the audience to the world of Madame X. We want to point out that on the actual live show, Madonna could be heard speaking while the theatre’s lights go dark but on the movie clips of the ‘God Control’ music video are shown in a shortened version of the speech. Madonna recites:
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the world of Madame X. We want you to be present and enjoy the journey with us, let nothing stand between us. And don’t forget: none of this is real!
This goes to explain why Madonna did not allow any mobile devices on her show (letting the audience close their cellphone on a Yondr bag) because she wanted to be capable of seeing everyone in their eyes and the audience to enjoy the show in its integrity.
The show starts with an Opening by Ahlamalik Williams (Madonna’s boyfriend) performing to the sounds of Madonna‘s typewriter, moving in rhythm to the words that appear on the scrim as gun shots attempt to silence the dancer behind the words themselves; Visually incorporated into the act are words by James Baldwin, an American writer and activist (a clip of him talking can also be found at the end of the Film).
The performance pays homage to Martin Luther King and Malcom X, two great revolutionaries murdered for their thoughts and their bravery to express them. The works of Madonna, experienced through her music and live concert videos, inspired Damien Jalet, the artist that choreographed 4 segments of the ‘Madame X Tour’: ‘Opening‘, ‘Extreme Occident‘, ‘Rescue Me/Breathwork‘ and ‘Frozen‘.
When Madonna contacted him almost 30 years later, with the offer to choreograph parts of her “Madame X” tour (her first theatrical tour ever) as well as becoming the tour’s creative advisor, it was an offer he couldn’t refuse!
‘God Control‘ is the opening performance of the Film; the directing looks beautiful and close-ups of Madonna under a wrecked American flag projection are quick but effective. Clips of protests in America for ‘gun control’, as well as crowd shots from the Lisbon and Paris ‘Madame X’ audience can also be seen during the number. Overall, the peformance feels very energetic as also enhanced by the mentioned video effects, but still keeping a cinematic look, leaving the theatrical aspect (of the show, as we will explain) intact. Colors are vivid and ‘feel’ natural.
Perhaps some fans might be concerned about the editing of this concert Film (past ‘MDNA Tour‘ and ‘Rebel Heart Tour‘ suffered of fast cuts and color grading issues). The fast cuts are still here on this Film but they actually highlight the performances in a classy way and give them more dynamicity, allowing the viewer to feel like they were actually there, in a small theatre, at the live show.
One more aspect we wanted to focus on before taking you to the next songs is the audio of the Film. We previously talked about it in-depth but we would like to clear out that sometimes Madonna’s vocals do sound autotuned (like on songs ‘Killers Who Are Partying‘ and ‘Future‘ – this one as on the actual live) while on other songs her vocals sound more natural.
Very few performances present a ‘backing track’, although barely noticeable unlike on the ‘Rebel Heart Tour‘ SHOWTIME Special & DVD/Blu-Ray, where sometimes Madonna sounded drowned by backing vocal and crowd sounds. In this case, the songs are balanced between the actual live track and the crowd noise and everything feels connected as we have noticed nothing wrong with the mixing (Actually we are very pleased at how crisp, warm and clean it sounds). As we focused on the most ‘edited’ vocals, we want to also add that Madonna’s voice really shines through on other songs, our favorites being ‘Fado Pechincha‘ and ‘Vogue‘.
A short clip from Madonna’s 1990’s Blond Ambition Vatican speech in Italy plays before ‘Dark Ballet‘.; a sub-bass plays in the background. Madonna recites:
‘If you are sure that I am a sinner, then let he, who has not sinned, cast the first stone. If you are not sure, then I beg of you, as righteous men and women of the Catholic Church that worship a God who loves unconditionally, to see my show and then judge me.
My show (…) asks questions, provokes thoughts and takes you on an emotional journey, portraying good and bad, light and dark, joy and sorrow, redemption and salvation.’
‘Dark Ballet‘ is one of our highlights and personal favorites of the Film; The editing on this particular performance is ‘still’ and classy, plunging the viewer into the theatrical scene, capturing the Art and the message of the performance in a flawless way. Clips from the ‘Dark Ballet’ music video play quick on the middle of the song, surrounded with closeups of Madonna and dancers in beautiful, cinematic stage shots. Madonna sounds amazing on this song, her voice sounding less edited than in the actual live show, belting out a ‘dramatic’ rendition that sets the tone.
A blue-tinted, trumpet-centered ‘Human Nature‘ performance comes right after, and once again the filming manages to life to this number. This arrangement of ‘Human Nature’ is similar to its original version, but presented in a more ‘jazz’ tone, with chilled-out drums and trumpets. In few scenes, Madonna is wearing an ‘X’ eye patch while in others she does not; This is due to various shows footage blended together in the Film. This type of editing is a ‘hit or miss’ and we personally do not love it. There’s also some shots of an upside-down Madonna, but this one does not disturb our viewing.
About this particular performance of ‘Human Nature‘, we would like to point out that Madonna, when ‘Dark Ballet‘ is ending, gets arrested and thrown in a ‘hole’ after screaming ‘Death to the patriarchy’, symbolizing censorship and the injustice of being punished just for being a woman. The ‘hole’ harks back to the ‘Human Nature‘ music video’s choreography and scenography, showing Madonna trapped inside white boxes, swaying inside them and kicking the walls. This ‘hole’ represents the ‘circle of life’, a subject to which Madonna has always been outspoken on many of her songs but also on the Tour itself (for example, ‘Life is a circle‘ from ‘Extreme Occident‘).
The song comes to an ending after an outro filled with Madonna playing Conga with Miroca Paris and grooving with Jessica Pina (on Trumpet); The lights go warm again and Madonna’s daughters Stella, Esther and Mercy James join her on stage on a cute ‘family’ moment, before ‘improvising’ an acapella snippet of ‘Express Yourself‘. Madonna then proceeds to go hide behind a screen, while changing outfit and chatting with the audience:
I’ve been waiting for ages to have this intimate experience with my audience. […] Thank you so much for being brave enough to come in here without your phone. I hope it’s not getting too inconvenient for you, or causing any sort of emotional damage. I’m just kidding. […] I couldn’t be happier to be able to look deep into your eyes. And you know, they say that the eyes are the windows to the soul.
We want to make clear that the audio changes drastically in various parts of the speeches as they come from different sources and different ‘Madame X’ shows; we were told that Madonna wanted to capture how the sound was perceived in various spots of the theatre. Part of the reason of this change can be explained due to the footage being captured with different tools; For example, some parts were recorded by Ricardo Gomes on his iPhone while others using a professional soundboard equipment.
‘Vogue‘ features footage from various shows but also from Madonna’s 2019 Stonewall NYC Pride performance, only appearing for brief moments in black and white, like on the first ‘Strike A Pose‘. The editing feels homogenic but quick, few couple times Madonna’s hairstyle change (a result of shows chopped together). As we stated before, we really enjoy the vocal performance of this song.
‘I Don’t Search I Find‘ comes in different Film ratios; it starts on a 2.39:1 widescreen ratio, with few filters going on Madonna like a red X. The middle of the song (also known as the interrogation scene) is presented in a 4:3 black and white ratio, a stylistic choice that works flawlessly on this segment (unlike the past Tour Films where the b/w use sometimes felt unnecessary); One more little detail is that, unlike the live show, Madonna’s spoken is live and is not accompained by a backing track, making the rendition way more raw and exciting. After this segment ends, the editing is back to the widescreen ratio again for the rest of the performance, with vibrant colors.
The Film shifts to the Polaroid moment, where Madonna chats with the audience:
I love to irritate people. You know people hate my grillz, so I wear them. People hate my eye patch, so I wear it.
She then lets the audience know Madame X is a mother, a child, a singer and a dancer but also a ‘saint’, then offers an instant photograph to the highest bidder. On one part, Israel, a long-time Madonna fan, offers more money if she was up for a ‘selfie’ together; Madonna is surprised but also intrigued by his request and exclaims ‘I have never done that‘ but, in the end, she accepts.
The ‘American Life‘ performance feels a little more chaotic than the others of the first act, as there are clips from the music video interfacing and some ‘splatter blood’ effects. Overall, the performance flows well – we personally love the ‘F**k it’ outro. Once again we find the ‘hole’ on stage, where Madonna on the outro of this song proceeds to come inside and close the door, symbolizing she is closing a circle, while still managing to ‘flip’ the haters and the press.
‘The Coffin‘ interlude is beautifully shot and edited; The dancers move to the sound of the Orquestra Batukadeiras‘ chants, with images of the world map transitioning to ‘Cape Verde‘. The women finally join the stage, walking through the crowd while singing and dancing. Words appear on the screen as the Batukadeiras walk on stage, words that explain the Art of Batuque as a music and dance genre created by women from Cape Verde, some say the birth place of slavery; the Church condemned the drums and took them away from the slaves. The women continued their singing and dancing and the Batuque still lives today.
‘Batuka‘ is definetely one of the highlights of the show; The edit really focuses on those brilliant, brave women from Cape Verde, and we absolutely love it. Madonna enters the stage climbing a ladder, then through the second part of the song she slowly walks down the stairs, strolling to the theatre floors and joining the group of women. Madonna looks energetic and vigorous in her movements, as we think this is the part of the show where she dances the best. The Batukadeiras swing around Madonna and even showcase their amazing ability of dancing with a bottle on their head. As the performance ends, Madonna proceeds to thank the artists:
Ladies and gentlemen, the Batukadera Orchestra from Cape Verde. Give it up! I’m so proud to know these women who represent the strength of being female, not only for Cape Verde, but also for women all around the world.
Madonna chats with the audience again and explains this show (in Lisbon) is very emotional for her as it’s the place where ‘it all started’; She explains she moved to Portugal to support her son (David Banda)’s passion for football, but, at some point, she started to feel alone and started going out in the city with her friend Victoria. The woman took Madonna to the ‘living room sessions’, a Portuguese tradition not found anywhere else in the world, where people get together in people’s homes to play music, sing, recite poetry, and paint paintings, just for the love of Art.
Madonna recalls meeting Dino D’Santiago, who proceeded to take her out to one Fado club after another. Madonna also commemorates meeting with Celeste Rodrigues, the oldest and one of the most famous fado singers in the world; she was the one that introduced Madonna to her great grandson, Gaspar Varela!
While we were rehearsing in Brooklyn 18 hours a day, Gaspar challenged me to learn how to sing a fado song. I’m always up for a challenge. So I learned a small piece. I don’t know, do you want to hear it?
Madonna proceeds to sing a snippet of Isabel De Oliveira’s ‘Fado Pechincha‘, only accompained by Gaspar’s guitar; Her voice here sounds amazing. Clips of the ‘World of Madame X’ documentary incorporated to the elegant performance of ‘Killers Who Are Partying’ showcase the beautiful art of Fado, with a background of Azulejo (ceramic tile) and a typical Portuguese setting, inspired by the ‘living room session’ Madonna mentioned earlier. The lighting of the show (and the Film) on this section works so well, as it captures the blue tones while keeping a warm and vivid tone. One more important aspect of this performance is that Madonna also changed the song’s line ‘I’ll be Israel, if they’re incarcerated‘ to Palestine, a switch of words she applied not only in Lisbon but on all ‘Madame X Tour’ live shows too.
‘Crazy‘ follows the same scheme as ‘Killers’, but it’s more focused on Madonna and her dancers, as she then gets up a table, avoiding and refusing any contact with them. Once again, beautifully shot and we love the vocal used on it.
A little intermission from the ‘World of Madame X’ plays before ‘Welcome to My Fado Club/La Isla Bonita‘, another highlight of the show because Madonna sounds great and the cinematography is amazing; We want to also add that this performance was shortened in length to highlight ‘La Isla Bonita’. Madonna goes on to explain that Madame X doesn’t like to stay in one place for too long, because ‘you cannot hit a moving target‘. The show finally takes us to ‘Medellin‘, introduced by an unique and very original musical number to the sound of Madonna’s typewriter, as she sits on her desk and types, with words appearing on the screen taken from the song’s video clip.
‘I’ve been tortured. Kidnapped. I’ll never be what society wants me to be. From now on, I am Madame X‘, Madonna starts typing on her typerwriter, while the lights of the theatre are dark with blue tones. The lights warm up the stage again once Madonna starts singing, featuring Maluma as a visual background on the stage. During the filming in Lisbon, on one show Madonna walks off stage with her son David Banda who takes her by the hand, dancing to the music and guiding her through the crowd; Madonna concludes the song and exclaims ‘What a gentleman you are, your mother raised you well!‘. She then proceeds to go near the audience to take a seat, ‘rest’ and have a drink.
The segment known as ‘Beer B**ch‘ finds Madonna having a conversation with an audience member that offers her a bottle of beer; On this Tour Film we find Dave Chappelle, actor and comedian, a moment taken from one of the earlier London ‘Madame X Tour’ shows:
I always tell Dave that he is the next James Baldwin, but he refuses that title.
The ‘Extreme Occident‘ number finds Madonna lost in a moving labyrinth, with parts of the stage (stairs) moving around, symbolizing she cannot find a center, peace and consciousness in herself. Pointing all attention to each detail and focusing not only on Madonna but on everything that surrounds her, the edit presents the performance in a 2:39.1 ratio (like I Don’t Search I Find) and is, once again, beautifully shot.
The hauntingly beautiful ‘Rescue Me/Breathwork‘ Interlude comes right next, inspired by the movie ‘Suspiria‘ by Luca Guadagnino (2018), a remake of the famous movie by Dario Argento (1977); Damien Jalet choreographed the movie and also this dance number for Madame X. The dancers form a line at stage front to perform an intricate piece based on a complex score of inhales and exhales. Through the re-discovery of the body created by modern and then contemporary dance – in addition to Bausch, the models that inspired the movie Suspiria (and so, this performance) remain Martha Graham and Mary Wigman; The performance celebrates the power of the human body with the ritualized cycles of life, death and rebirth. The materiality of the flesh as a place of expression of the ineffability of the spirit.
‘Frozen‘ opens the last section of the show, in a number once again inspired by Martha Graham; in fact, Madonna wears a black gown and a headband, inspired not only by the looks of the dancer but also her choreographic movements. Madonna wrote this song after becoming a mother for the first time of Lourdes Leon in 1997, and in this performance Madonna dances under a scrim with a black and white visual projection of her daughter. The audience only realizes it is Madonna’s daughter after Lourdes lifts her arms, revealing her unshaved armpits – an important symbol for Madonna, who constantly battled against discrimination and sexism on the course of her career.
Lourdes performs to a number recalling the original music video, concluding the performance with a close-up of her hand with the tattoo ‘Mom’ on it. Luigi and Lango directed the visual for the performance, portraying Lourdes as a shape-shifting spirit who finds her freedom through her movements.
Francesca Dardani introduces with a violin solo ‘Come Alive’, a song Madonna wrote inspired by Morocco during her visit to the city for her 60th Birthday in August 2018. Clips of the trip appear through the performance on the Film to highlight the inspiration and the fascinating culture that surrounds this magical place. The track focuses on the sound of ‘Qraqeb‘, a typical instrument of Morocco mostly used in the Gnawa culture in music and in ‘Lila’ theraupetic and purifying sessions. This number follows a barefeet Madonna dancing on stage in a full Versace outfit and her Graham-inspired headband. Madonna closes the performance and a choir joins her on stage, while singing to the closing line ‘Come Alive, Come Alive!’.
Madonna takes a brief moment to chat with the audience and explain that ‘Artists are here to disturb the peace‘, mentioning once again the words of the great James Balwin. An elusive stripped down version of ‘Future‘ plays next, as Madonna sits and starts playing the piano. A burning fire into Madonna’s instrument and rubbles on the audience projected and added as a VFX in post-production give the performance more dynamicity, including also intermissions from Madonna’s ‘Ghosttown’ music video. A cool fact from this number is that Madonna performs for the first time a never-heard before second verse of the track, instead of Quavo’s verse as heard on the original version.
Judge yourself, no one else
Day begins, wash away your sins
There’s a spirit, think I hear it
Pulling you down, put your head down
Feel it turning, feel it burnin’
Feel it burnin’, gotta learn it
Oh yeah, let your light shine
Both ‘Future‘ and ‘Frozen‘ are two of the numbers which were re-filmed earlier this year to give more depth to the performances and let the viewer understand the message that is behind both songs and numbers, as the original footage filmed in Lisbon did not feel ‘enough’ to showcase the artistic value and performance’s intergrity.
After ‘Future’ ends with a visual of a city and clips from the nex track’s music video, Madonna follows to perform a trap-influenced remix of ‘Like A Prayer‘, an arrangement similar to the one performed in 2019 at the Eurovision Song Contest. Once again the choir joins Madonna on stage, in a set built by moving parts of the stage structure in a way that it can form an X.
The show’s closing number starts with a video introduction showing protests for human rights, LGBTQ+ community’s fight for equality, battles against the patriarchy and the Black Lives Matter movement, with Madonna speaking:
I wrote “I Rise” as a way of giving a voice to all marginalized people; people who don’t have the opportunity to speak their mind; people who are in jail, incarcerated, bullied, beaten, abused; All people who feel that they are being oppressed. I hope that this song gives people hope and courage to be who they are, and to not be afraid to be who they are, and to speak their mind, and to love themselves. Because you can’t love other people, unless you love yourself.
Once again, we find Ahlamalik Williams in his own dance number, moving his hands and body as James Balwin‘s words appear on the screen: ‘Everybody’s hurt. What is important, what torments you, is that you must find some way of using this to connect with everyone else alive.‘
‘I Rise‘ closes the show with a moving performance as Madonna sings and dances to a background similar to its music video, once again showing people fighting for a change and protesting against a corrupted system. Madonna comes off stage walking through the crowd with her hand in the air, singing ‘I will Rise‘ around twenty times; This line is sung in a way that it sounds like a slogan on Protest marches. She then exclaims ‘Power to the people!‘, thanking the audience and wishing them a good night, before the screen turns pitch black. James Baldwin can be heard speaking right after, saying that ‘The world is held together by the love and passion of only a few people‘. The movie cuts to the credits, with clips from Madonna and Steven Klein’s Madame X photoshoot footage, as an edit of the album International Bonus Track ‘Ciao Bella‘ plays.
‘Madame X‘ is an intricate journey; this Film, in its almost two hours, takes you all around the world, lead by an energetic Madonna who never lost her passion for Art. Approaching her 40th year in the music industry, Madonna released her debut single ‘Everybody‘ in October 1982; That fire she had inside back then, coming from a Michigan born 24-years old woman who swore she would ‘conquer the world’ – a promise she made public on live TV in 1984 and managed to keep herself faithful to even 37 years later – is alive. Somehow, Madonna has re-invented her image, switched up her style and undertook different directions a countless number of times but she always found something important to say and to teach to the listeners. Art is meant to disturb the peace and set us free and ‘Madame X‘ is a freedom fighter.