Madonna has been Madonna for so long it’s hard to think of her as anything but that. Yes, she’s drifted into film and various business ventures through the years, but all in all, she’s simply herself. The iconic red lips and bleached hair, the songs promoting sexuality, unapologetically demanding freedom and liberty are all character traits.
But a few years ago, before moving to Lisbon, Portugal so her son could pursue soccer, she began crafting and later adopted a new persona, Madame X. An album soon followed and then a tour–where she played smaller, intimate theaters across Europe and the United States before being shut down by the pandemic.
Madame X, now streaming on Paramount+, is a documentary of a concert in Lisbon, where much of the album was inspired and crafted. The concert—and film—tell an overarching story of both personal and intersectional resilience, about confidence through turmoil and scandal. Early on, she proudly declares, “The most controversial thing I’ve ever done is stick around!”
The film begins with one man illuminated before a screen where he moves in tandem with the words appearing. The text is typed with fervor on a vintage typewriter begin appearing, declaring “artists are here to disrupt the peace,” a quote from writer James Baldwin. Then there’s a long compilation of clips from recent American protests, integrating footage from Black Lives Matter protests in the name of George Floyd—that took place after the tour was done—along with protests for gun control, measures to combat climate change and against Donald Trump. It’s moving, then becomes violent when the police appear and shoot, shattered glass falling down the screen. The filmmakers did a good job integrating visual effects from the stage projections directly onto the screen to feel less like a live recording and more immediate.
Madonna, wearing what looks like a pop star’s interpretation of a Revolutionary War uniform, finally appears. Donning a wide hat with big, fluffy white feathers, a black coat adorned with American flags, fishnet tights and knee pads (“I love being on my knees,” Madame X says later in one of her many sexually charged rants), she sings “God Control.” Bullets are fired and more glass shatters around Madame X, as police come in full force to disrupt the scene.
When she puts on her eyepatch with a red X across it, Madame X has officially arrived to get her work done. Determined to inspire people around the world that humanity has more commonalities than differences, the show touches various corners of the world and finds the music in each of them. Madame X journeys first to the West African country of Cape Verde and discovers the “Batuka” rhythm and song, while a resilient group of women surrounds her with their music deemed anti-Christian by colonizers and slave traders.
Through the rest of the film, she continues to tour the globe, touching down in Lisbon where she enjoys a beer and performs “La Isla Bonita,” while “the Portuguese lullaby” stings her eyes. She then drifts to a fourth continent, South America, where she touches down in Medellín, Colombia and takes her jab at Latin dance styles, the stage now a villa. Despite this traveling, the stage design is almost as simple as can be; at least for an artist who routinely performs in arenas and stadiums. Two staircases form an X across the center of the stage, across which most of the action and visuals appear. There’s a simple door and cutout circle assembled in the wedges of the X for moments like a costume change or a sexy dance (“Human Nature.”)
Madame X makes one final stop in South Asia, where she performs “Come Alive” and “Future.” The dancers and Madame X now wearing colorful flowing clothes with tile patterns. Through all the geographic shifts that take place, Madame X is careful not to appropriate or exploit the cultures in which she finds herself. She’s determined to stand with the oppressed (check out the story of “Killers Who Are Partying”) but at times it still feels awkward to watch recreations of police violence against People of Color or the origins of the Atlantic Slave Trade as told by a white woman.
After spending time in Colombia, the film drifts into its most visually appealing moments when Madame X performs “Frozen” as a mirrored, black and white video of her daughter Lourdes Leon surrounds her. Leon moves to the music doing a sensual, interpretive dance with heavy emphasis placed on her full lips and hands as she glides through puddles of water. In the final moments, a quick shot of her fingers, with the word “mom” tattooed on them, is shown, cueing those who were unaware of how the lucky woman was picked by Madame X to perform.
For the film’s encore, Madame X performs “I Rise” in a short and sleek black leather coat. Over another montage of protests, Madonna and her dancers raise their fists as the entire screen fades into a Pride flag. “Power to the people,” she yells from the crowd before a final clip of Madame X typing, inspired by the words of Baldwin, plays. It’s as much a documentary as a concert film or play, but either way, it’s fun to still see Madonna commanding a stage.