“Artists are here to disturb the peace,” concludes a James Baldwin quote projected during the extensive opening sequence of Madonna’s Madame X tour. It accompanies a typing silhouette of Madame X herself, and a brilliantly choreographed dancer who falls to a cacophony of gunshots. It’s a strong (and long) opening to a powerful performance.
The intimate, residency-style tour marked my first time seeing Madonna live. I wasn’t fond of the namesake body of work, but I was excited to see what Madonna would bring to the stage. Since phones had to be locked away in order to get into the venue, there was no footage or photography to hint at what Madonna had in store for the audience. The show was a powerful statement piece, heightened by the lack of digital distractions. The staging and musical arrangements of the show brought context to songs that were strange and off-putting on Madame X. Sure, the album comes off convoluted at times, but it’s her own way of speaking up about the issues in today’s world. It was the first time I witnessed a tour that truly upstaged and outpaced an album. Unfortunately, the tour fails to translate stage to screen and disturbs this artist’s impact.
Madonna touted this film for over a year. With all that time spent, it’s reasonable to expect a better product. Ironically, the biggest issue with this film is the choppy edit. It rarely holds a single shot for more than three seconds. This chaotic editing creates a frantic final product that feels more like a montage from an awards show or a commercial teaser, not a full-length performance presentation. It’s extremely difficult to get a grasp on what’s happening throughout the show. The film sources footage from multiple nights of performances (all from her run in Lisbon), as well as a series of re-shoots that took place earlier this year. Sloppy cuts during songs make it abundantly and annoyingly clear that the footage is from multiple performances. This doesn’t feel like a cohesive product.
Classics like “Vogue,” were accompanied by fantastic stagings, but don’t land when the camera refuses to stay still long enough to give viewers an idea of what’s actually happening on any part of the stage. Every time you try to focus on something, the shot changes and throws you off, sometimes cracking open to reveal a split-screen, or other times doubling back with slow-motion sequences. Madonna didn’t have the luxury of controlling what the audience focused on during the performances, but she gave us a lot of choices. Here, she tries to show you everything, all the time, without honing in on one thing. It’s hectic, haphazard, and hellish.
Things get a touch better during “Batuka,” which was an illuminating moment of the show. The confusing record from Madame X gains valuable context thanks to a series of messages flashed across the screens from the song’s music video explaining the roots of the batuque music driving the song. With that understanding, the song makes sense, and lands better than it does on the album. The live vocal (though auto-tuned to hell and back) compliments the raw tribal percussion provided by the Batukadeiras Orchestra.
When the stage switches over to what she refers to as her fado club (fado is a Portuguese genre of music) before “Killers Who Are Partying,” it’s a beautiful setup, and highlights how pieces of the set evolve throughout the performance. It’s difficult to appreciate the fado club set because the stage is never seen in full for more than three straight seconds. That staging is part of what helped make these performances stick, and helped lines such as “I will be gay, if the gay are burned,” land without as much cringe. At times it feels more like a montage than a straight cut performance.
There’s also the very poorly-timed inclusion of an exchange with Dave Chappelle, who’s in the audience. Madonna sits with him to chat, and informs the audience that she always tries to call him “the next James Baldwin.” In light of his latest homophobia and transphobia-filled Netflix special, which is wrapped up in the bow of Chappelle proclaiming himself a TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist), this was probably not the best week for Madonna to compare him to the unapologetically homosexual Baldwin.
Not Madonna calling Dave Chappelle “the next James Baldwin” in the middle of the Madame X concert film. pic.twitter.com/T9YjO1xV0J
— Andrew (The Aretha Version) (@SoulAtlantic) October 8, 2021
She does get it right, spectacularly, for the show’s most compelling moment. A screen descends as dancers line up and perform what is referred to as “Breathwork.” Heavy breaths dictate their movements, while Madonna’s voice washes over in reflection. It leads into “Frozen” which begins with a young woman projected on the screen in black and white. She opens her hand and a light illuminates an understated and softly-lit Madonna seated sideways behind the screen. As the chorus begins, the mystery figure runs her fingers through her hair and is finally revealed to be Madonna’s oldest daughter, Lourdes. The power of this performance lies in the juxtaposition of a seated Madonna and her daughter overlaid on the screen. Thankfully, the choppy editing relents for a moment and allows the show’s peak to properly reach home audiences.
The magnitude of this performance can’t be understated. “Frozen” wasn’t written explicitly about the breakup between Lourdes’ father and Madonna, but she told The New York Times that the song is about “retaliation, revenge, hate, and regret,” and it was written in the shadow of their breakup. With that in mind, it’s breathtaking to witness this song find a new layer of meaning: a plea from mother to daughter. Madonna looks at her daughter with despair as she delivers the line, “If I lose you, my heart would be broken.” The words reverberate like anvils pummeling the ground as they transform to describe the volatility of a parent-child relationship. “If I could melt your heart,” she ponders, and at the lyric’s final repetition Lourdes’ “m-o-m” knuckle tattoo flashes across the screen as the spotlight on Madonna goes dark. It is one of the most immense performances Madonna has ever given.
Unfortunately, it’s right back to the chaotic editing once the performance ends, further disrupted by a hollow mix on “Come Alive,” one of the only records that’s better on the album than it is in this performance. And disappointingly, the final act of the show cuts the Tracy Young Remix of “Crave.” This fantastic, disco-drenched remix was a highlight when it debuted on the tour, and is the only song regularly included in the setlist to be excluded from this film and album.
This film warrants a re-cut. With better editing this could be the compelling statement piece Madonna intended it to be, in a period where she has shifted back towards making music with meaning, so much so that she felt it warranted words from James Baldwin to bookend the performance. If nothing else, be sure not to miss the performance of “Frozen.” It’s one for the books.
Madame X is now streaming on Paramount+, and the live album is available to stream and purchase digitally.