(Collage by Matthew Rettenmund)
I was 21 when Madonna's Blond Ambition World Tour came to Chicago. I semi-slept out with my friend John in the freezing cold, scoring eighth-row seats the old-fashioned way: Luck.
We knew a lot about the show from the underground fan network that existed, courtesy of the USPS, prior to the Internet, and via foreign magazines that had published shots from the tour's opening in Japan. When I spotted some of Madonna's (gay!!!) dancers in the Water Tower, I followed them around a bit, coveting their tour jackets. We knew their names: Oliver Crumes (rumored to be having an affair with Madonna), Slam Gauwloos, Kevin Stea, Carlton Wilborn, Gabriel Trupin, Luis Camacho and Jose Gutierez.
John and I traveled to the venue on one of the nights before our show, the last in the area. Doing reconnaissance, we spied on the intoxicatingly well-stocked merch booths and even had a close encounter with Liz Rosenberg, Madonna's famous publicist. I asked if she was Liz Rosenberg. Yes. Can I have your autograph? Mine? No.
The morning of our show, I received a note from a friend at my dorm expressing sympathy over the gig's unexpected cancelation. I had not heard, and was devastated when I confirmed that Madonna had indeed canceled. My friend didn't believe me when I phoned him. I can still remember the haunted denial in his voice.
He never saw the show, and I had to train home to Michigan and buy a horrible scalped seat just so I could say I'd been there in person. It was worth it, as the tour was a work of art more powerful to me than anything I'd seen in a museum ... and I like museums.
Luis, Slam & Jose in a scene from Truth or Dare (Image via Miramax)
A year later, Truth or Dare came out. It was the ultimate Madonna product and project, a film that in many ways both cemented her place in world popular culture as an icon, and that also, conversely, demystified her so successfully that she's never truly returned to the giddy heights of a moment when people craved to know so much about her that a documentary on her tour and touring company became the highest-grossing documentary of all time. (It is currently #17 on that list.)
I will never forget sitting in the theater, watching Truth or Dare. Every frame was giving me what I wanted—more information about Madonna, straight from the source. Unlike with films—Dick Tracy or Who's That Girl—there was no padding, just a full-on Madonna smorgasbord. It was like her celebrity pap smear, an R-rated X-ray.
I can't completely explain the feeling, but I recall feeling, well, stupid after the movie ended. It is a brilliant film, but it also reminded me at every turn that (1) I probably cared too much about Madonna, and (2) Madonna wasn't really as mysterious as previous music videos and photo shoots had hinted. I decided I would cool off on collecting Madonnabilia for a while.
Instead, I doubled down and wrote a book about her and haven't looked back.
Truth or Dare remains a cunning piece of entertainment, one that influenced legions of fans in a variety of ways, not least of which to embrace their sexualities and sexual identities, a side effect attributable less to Madonna than to her film's curation of her dancers' personal stories. Their names aren't on the movie poster, but they should be, because Madonna's dancers were a huge part of both the film's truth and its daring.
Carlton Wilborn in a scene from Strike a Pose (Image by Ester Gould & Reijer Zwaan)
Twenty-five years after the release of Truth or Dare, Dutch filmmakers Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan have ballsily reassembled Madonna's troupe of dancers to find out what happened to them in the intervening years, providing the results in their documentary Strike a Pose, which is currently playing the Tribeca Film Festival and seeking theatrical distribution.
The film—funny, moody, melodramatic, revealing—nimbly piggy-backs on the notoriety of Madonna and Truth or Dare while establishing its own identity. Madonna is the sun, but the dancers are the planets explored in what becomes a universal commentary on the folly of youth, the power of dance and the fact that sometimes, when people disagree, nobody is 100% right.
Luis is ready to makeup (Image by Ester Gould & Reijer Zwaan)
Following the release of Truth or Dare, three of Madonna's dancers sued her; Oliver and Kevin sought more money, claiming their agreement to be filmed was never with the understanding that it was for a feature, of which they'd be such a large part, while Gabriel claimed he was additionally wronged when Madonna insisted on including a scene of him kissing Slam in the film, which effectively outed him to his family before he was ready. The suit was withdrawn and settled for an undisclosed amount in October 1994. The tumult from the lawsuit is beautifully and fairly explored in the film, including touching scenes of Gabriel's still-grieving mother recalling her son's death from AIDS on December 15, 1995, just over a year after the lawsuit was resolved.
Other than the lawsuit, even big-time Madonna fans are probably in the dark as to what the boys—now men—have been up to since 1991. Strike a Pose reveals their struggles—with drug addiction, with HIV and (even more so) HIV stigma, with chasing the heady success they tasted on tour with Madonna—but also presents them as more than entertaining support. In Strike a Pose, the dancers' lives are fleshed out to include how they make a living, with whom they are in love, what they do for fun. In short, this new documentary presents them less as vessels for button-pushing and topic-addressing and more as human beings.
It says something that Madonna's lack of participation in this project is never missed, although her visage is revisited via clips from the '90s. The subjects are sensationally forthcoming, but the filmmakers never sensationalize the material. It's like the opposite of reality TV because it has so much reality.
In Truth or Dare, the boys—without even seeing the big picture—helped Madonna express herself. In Strike a Pose, it's their turn to articulately express their own selves, and these are six selves to which a large number of gay men around their age and younger will relate.
Don't miss it, because while beauty's where you find it, it helps if you're seeking it out.
Catch Strike a Pose at the Tribeca Film Festival tonight, on 4/16, on 4/18 or on 4/24.