Great Singer, Terrible Actress

Vishwas Kulkarni
Pop Vulture

Madonna’s 12th studio album, MDNA, betrays the diva’s obsession with being young and contemporary. That said, it’s also an insistence that had led to an incredibly polished product

Rating: 8/10

There is something to be said for Madonna’s obsession with youth: her 12th studio album is titled MDNA, a play on MDMA, the party drug that heady teenagers tend to club to, occasionally with disastrous results. Two of the twelve tracks adorning MDNA have the word ‘girl’ in it (‘Girl Gone Wild’ and ‘Some Girls’). Fortunately, it is also an obsession that sees Madonna on top of her game at 53. And being 53 also means that she’s trying doubly as hard to produce cutting-edge pop.
Miraculously, with MDNA, the effort pays off. It locates itself on the thin line between a petulant insistence on being trendy at any cost and being a truly gobsmacking product. Those sound mixers must have cost a lot of money. Where her voice fails (it was never that great, in fact) her DJs truly take over. This could well be the story of many a pop diva (including Lady Gaga and Kylie Minogue). True, Madonna was never a Whitney Houston, who was called “The Voice” for her gift. Yet, while Whitney died in a bathtub due to drug abuse, Madonna is clever enough to merely play around with the acronyms of narcotics and never actually consume them. This shrewdness is apparent in how intelligently MDNA is produced, how manipulative (and alluring) its production design is. The cover jacket inside has the 53-year-old in a black bra, looking absolutely dishy. Those fashion stylists and Photoshop experts she’s hired are also the best that money can buy at present.
The opening track is strictly okay, bringing back scary memories of Madge’s earlier career nadirs (Bedtime Stories, American Life and Hard Candy). Track two, ‘Gang Bang’, is a super-silly foot-stomper that many a teenager will gleefully lip-sync to (it ends with these famous last words: “if you’re gonna act like a bitch, you’re gonna die like a bitch.”). ‘I’m Addicted’ is nothing short of brilliant for its electronic bravado, its high-energy mania. And then comes a song that encapsulates Madonna’s universal, timeless appeal. ‘Turn Up The Radio’ starts with a riff that almost reminds you of ‘Hysteria’ by Deff Leppard or ‘Sweet Child of Mine’ by Guns N Roses. And then she croons in that child-like voice that made this material girl a household name globally:
“When the world starts to get you down
And nothing seems to go your way
And the noise of the maddening crowd
Makes you feel like you're going to go insane
There's a glow of a distant light
Calling you to come outside
To feel the wind on your face and your skin
And it's here I begin my story
Turn up the Radio” 

The song is quintessentially Madonna because it reveals the one thing she loves more than herself, or something close to it, for that is not really possible in her case: music. ‘Give Me All Your Luvin’, despite being a smash hit that also earned her a place in history as the female artist with the largest number of Top 10 Billboard hits, is genuinely for a teenage market. More seasoned Madonna followers, such as your reporter, might feel a tad ashamed foot-stomping to it, though it will cheer you up on even your worst day. There is a reason this album has been christened around a serotonin booster that is illegal.
Side B is sonic dynamite. Madonna brings out all her Arab steeds into the music studio with it. ‘Superstar’, ‘I Don’t Give A’ and ‘I’m a Sinner’ are all technical marvels. ‘Love Spent’ is hugely disappointing from this line up, but ‘Masterpiece’ is one of those ballads that Madame M can look forward to highlighting in one of those compilations that she must already be planning for her leaner patch (she has one every two years, gets written off, and then returns with dazzling promise). ‘Falling Free’ is the concluding track from the album and not the best from this dirty dozen. But by then you’ve already had a good fix of an addiction called Madonna.
10 INSTANCES OF MADONNA’S FILMIC JINX: Why the Queen of Pop never quite made it as the queen of the box-office

1. Lurid Beginnings: A Certain Sacrifice (1979)
Even though Madge hit the big time with Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), a B-grade semi-soft porn flick titled A Certain Sacrifice (1979) soon started doing the rounds on the video circuit circa 1985. It turns out that Madge acted in the 1979 flick as a struggler in New York City. She acted in the film for a fee of $100, something she desperately needed to pay the rent. Later in the same year, Playboy magazine, cashing in on her meteoric rise on the charts in the mid-'80s, released an issue with Madonna on its cover. It turns out that Madonna had posed nude for the magazine in 1978. The rent in New York might have been rather expensive. But these lurid beginnings didn’t bode well for her thespian ambitions.

2. Beginner's Luck: Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)

This film remains Madonna’s best to date. It is also 27 years old. Madge gave a terrific performance as a tramp, a role rendered even hipper thanks to her chic insouciance on screen, a quality she rapidly lost as her (musical) star shone brighter. This comedy of mistaken identities opened to rave reviews and was a massive box office success. It also made Rosanna Arquette an indie favourite for a short while. Then two box office turkeys spoilt the party for Madonna: Who’s That Girl? and Shanghai Surprise came around, the latter with hubby Sean Penn in tow...

3. Who’s That Guy? Part I (circa 1986)

Ask any cinephile this and he’ll tell you that Sean Penn is the man who played the lead role in Dead Man Walking, the award-winning film by Tim Robbins. Sean Penn is also the man who directed Into the Wild, a hypnotically poetic adaptation of the book which chronicles the tragic case of Christopher McCandless. McCandless was a graduate from Emory University who died with his Thoreau-esque experiment of attempting to live off North America’s wilderness. Yet, for Sean Penn, the beginnings were not very promising. In the mid-‘80s he was Madonna’s troubled, lesser-known boyfriend/husband. Sean Penn even acted with his then massively successful wife in the 1986 turkey, Shanghai Surprise. But he made good of his modest beginnings in film; Madonna made bad.

4. Docu-Mental: Truth or Dare (1991)

Madge has had her moments of cinematic brilliance. One of them was a documentary, Truth or Dare (known as In Bed with Madonna outside the US), which featured her backstage on her ‘Blonde Ambition’ tour. The documentary shot when she was at the peak of her success in 1990 did astounding well on the VHS circuit too. Yet, as many Madonna-philes point out, it was still a documentary. It was Madonna as herself, not another persona, something she fails to pull off. Two exceptions to this rule are Evita (more on that later) and Desperately Seeking Susan (check slide number 2).

5. Any Tom, Harry or Dick Tracy (1990)

Her celebrated affair with Warren Beatty made Dick Tracy one of the biggest hits of 1990. And while Madonna got to sing Sooner or Later at the Oscars, the film did little to improve Madge’s box office standing or her love life. Warren Beatty and she moved on after the film. So much so, that her next album post the Dick Tracy OST had a song bitching out Annette Bening, Beatty’s to-be wife. It was called “Thief of Hearts.” It didn’t help matters much that Annette Bening had been nominated for an Oscar for her performance in Stephen Frears’s The Grifters in 1990.

6. Main Bhi Sharon Stone: Body of Evidence (1993)

Then, post her break-up with Warren Beatty, Madonna did something that even her strongest supporters could not stand by. She did a Sharon Stone. Inspired by Basic Instinct’s massive success, Madonna did a me-too with a film starring Daniel Dafoe. A courtroom drama in which Madonna plays a wily woman accused of murder and Dafoe a defending attorney who is drawn into her carnal web, the film had an infamous sex scene in which she pours wax over Dafoe’s chest and all sorts of kinky stuff. And yet…it bombed. In fact, so invested was Madge in making a cinematic comeback with Body of Evidence that she released it as a three-pronged strategy that saw the release of her first tome, a coffee table book titled, ahem, Sex, her latest album titled Erotica, and this film, which earned her the top honours for a female performance at the 14th Golden Raspberry Awards.

7. An Oscar Denied?: Evita (1996)

When Evita released to rave reviews in 1996, it was assumed that Madonna’s moment of cinematic glory had finally arrived. There couldn’t be a better role that suited her skill sets. Madge even garnered top awards at the Golden Globes. There was a buzz that she was to win the Oscar for Best Actress. Sadly, that never happened. A snub from the Academy was something that many critics still believe was unfair to Madge, for at least a nomination would have helped. A year later, someone as blonde as Kim Basinger won an Oscar for a blink-and-miss role in LA Confidential.

8. Who’s That Guy? Part II (2000-2008)

Many sceptics still believe that Madonna married cutting-edge British director Guy Ritchie in the hope that he’d turn her into a diva of sorts. He tried with Swept Away (2002). The film was made for $10 million. It earned $500,000 at the box office. Nuff said. The couple divorced amicably in the late noughties.

9. Power Lunches With Pariahs: You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again (1988)

Oscar-winning producer Julia Phillips’s notorious autobiography, You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, was a bitchfest from hell. It slammed all the big names in Hollywood and became one of the most controversial books to ever come out of tinsel town. It also made Julia Phillips, who battled cocaine addiction in the ‘70s and failed to make a comeback as a top-notch producer despite cleaning up her act, a social pariah. During a career nadir, the book makes a mention of Madonna and Sean Penn setting up a meeting with Julia Phillips at Morton’s, a well-established Hollywood hangout. They were hoping to make a movie with Phillips or were at least willing to talk about it. That an out-on-her-luck producer such as Julia Phillips could meet this easily with the reigning queen of pop is telling of how badly Madge wanted Hollywood to happen.

10. Brickbats at Berlin: Filth and Wisdom (2008)

Madonna’s directorial debut in 2008 was panned by critics at the Berlin Film Festival where it premiered.   The Telegraph described the film as "not an entirely unpromising first effort" but went on to say that "Madonna would do well to hang on to her day job." Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian opened his review with, "Well, it had to happen. Madonna has been a terrible actor in many, many films and now - fiercely aspirational as ever - she has graduated to being a terrible director.” Yet there is something to be said for Madge's pluck. Despite all this, she produced a critically acclaimed documentary, I Am Because We Are, via her production company, Semtex Films. The film, about the plight of Malawian children whose parents have died from HIV/AIDS won many awards across the globe and premiered at Sundance. Let’s hope there is a ray of light for Madge’s cinematic aspirations somewhere in the near future, even if going by this record, it seems highly unlikely.