“Freedom’s what you choose to do with what’s been done to you.” Madonna’s Madame X Tour in Chicago and Come From Away National Tour in Detroit

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“Unhappy the land where heroes are needed.” – Galileo, in Brecht’s Life of Galileo (1943)

“The theater, which is in no thing, but makes use of everything – gestures, sounds, words, screams, light, darkness – rediscovers itself at precisely the point where the mind requires a language to express its manifestations…. To break through language in order to touch life is to create or recreate the theatre.” – Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and Its Double (1938)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“…agitprop theatre, a highly politicized theatre that originated in 1920s Europe and spread to the United States; the plays of Bertolt Brecht are a notable example. Russian agitprop theater was noted for its cardboard characters of perfect virtue and complete evil, and its coarse ridicule. Gradually the term agitprop came to describe any kind of highly politicized art.” – Wikipedia entry on “Agitprop Theatre

“Stop the world/Take a picture/Try to capture/To ensure this moment lasts/We’re still in it, but in a minute -/That’s the limit – and this present will be past.” – “Stop the World,” Come From Away

“I’m not your bitch. Don’t hang your shit on me.” – Madonna, “Human Nature” from Bedtime Stories

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

It’s funny – not “ha ha” funny, but odd funny – that I haven’t much wanted to write anything else since seeing Joker three weeks ago. That film – and Joaquin Phoenix’ transcendent performance – took up permanent residence in my brain and refracted everything I’ve viewed since. I’m still digesting that film and its profound reflection of our fragmented society. I want to see it again (and again), but maybe it’s for the best that life has intervened and, consequently, I haven’t been able to indulge that impulse.

My co-workers and yours truly in line for Madame X

Joker makes its plea for compassion and empathy in strokes both bold and nuanced, and it leaves a bruise (on the heart). That same earnest desire to reach through and wake us from our collective self-absorption and malaise was evident in two other performances I’ve taken in recently: Come From Away‘s National Tour stop at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre and Madonna’s Madame X tour residency at the Chicago Theatre, one a decided crowd-pleaser and the other a riding crop upside the head. I’m sure you can guess which is which.

Come From Away [Image Source: Wikipedia]

Come From Away is a beautiful show, on its surface a pastoral ode to the power of human kindness, belying its sharp-eyed critique of the darker sides of human nature.

Wrapped in the aural comfort food of its Chieftains-esque score, Come From Away tells the story of 38 planes rerouted to the tiny Newfoundland town of Gander during the days following 9/11 and the joys (and tensions) of a tight-knit community faced with housing and feeding and comforting thousands of stranded, anxious, and exhausted international travelers.

Come From Away [Image Source: Wikipedia]

What is brilliant about the show, beyond its Brechtian theatricality (a dozen actors play all of the townspeople and all of the visitors, using a handful of mismatched kitchen chairs, a costume item or two, and a clutch of flawless accents), is the fact that Come From Away is not a Valentine to 9/11. This isn’t some fawning piece of jingoistic nationalism. The heartwarming positivity of seeing a plucky band of Canadians open their doors and hearts to a rather spiky bunch of displaced Americans and other nationals is not without a few bumps along the way. Irene Sankoff’s and David Hein’s remarkably integrated book and score do not shy away from the ugliness of racism, misogyny, ageism, homophobia, materialism, and the overarching fear that can eat us all alive in the face of crisis.

That said, the show blazes a bright and inspiring path in its “warts and all” philosophy, leaving us with the comforting affirmation that there are in fact angels among us who truly care about all creatures (great and small).

Madonna [Image Source: Wikipedia]

Turning to Madonna for a moment, I read a review recently that described her latest recording Madame X as a cast album in search of its show. An apt description, given what I witnessed at the Chicago Theatre last week. I, for one, am a fan of Madonna when she lets her freak flag fly and doesn’t care one whit for marketability. Her Dick Tracy-inspired album I’m Breathless is a good example (ironic since it was clearly initiated as a marketing ploy … and turned out to be anything but.) Madame X is her nuttiest collection in years, Paul Simon’s Graceland as designed by Yoko Ono, Giorgio Moroder, and Tex Avery, full of world beats, polemics, and gobsmacking u-turns.

Madonna [Image Source: Wikipedia]

As a result, the album begs for some theatrical staging, and Madonna, for the most part delivers, taking her trademark arena/stadium excess and translating for much smaller and more intimate environs like the Chicago Theatre (where she is currently in residence as part of her Madame X world tour).

For the most part, it’s a very compelling switch, but, continuing the aforementioned “cast album” comparison, if these small theatre residencies are Madame X‘s out of town tryouts, I think Madge needs to send the “book” back for some revisions.

This was NOT a deal as Madonna didn’t take the stage until 11:15 pm, concluding at nearly 2 am! She may be in cahoots with the parking industry.

When our Queen of Pop tries to be overtly political and offer “profound” declamations of individualism, she comes off like a college freshman who has just discovered Jean-Paul Sartre and James Baldwin. Madonna has never been what one would consider an exceptional comic raconteur so the show’s interminable patter between songs, ostensibly structured to create intimacy, provocation, and laughter falls exceptionally, head-scratchingly flat. When the show focuses on more of a one-world ideology, with its polyglot mixing bowl of international flavors and styles, the implied politics of love and understanding are much more impactful.

The bulk of the show’s set list is pulled from the album Madame X with more than a few classics woven in: “Express Yourself,” “Rescue Me,” “Papa Don’t Preach,” “American Life” (sounding fresher and more prescient than ever), “Frozen” (a breathtaking performance which includes floor-to-ceiling projections of Madonna’s first-child Lourdes dancing as her mother sings this haunting hit from Ray of Light, the album inspired by Lourdes’ birth), “La Isla Bonita,” “Human Nature,” and a rousing “Like a Prayer.”

My work pals and yours truly before dinner/show

The old songs fit nicely alongside the new, providing a thematic arc of free-expression and heartfelt-spirituality that is quite effective, juxtaposed as they are with dystopian images of a society skidding off the rails: dancers in police garb, gas masks, and other militant fetish-wear or the recurring martial motif of a vintage typewriter whose striking keys double as gunfire throughout the production.

When Madonna visits some of the stronger material from Madame X – the stuttering sci-fi shmaltz of “Future,” the slinky robo-cha-cha-cha of “Medellin,” or the sultry disco of “Crave” – the show is a luscious dream.

As with every Madonna tour, there are a couple of numbers to preserve in the proverbial time capsule. In the case of Madame X (in addition to some wonderful exploration of Lisbon’s Fado culture), “Batuka” with its accompaniment by the all-women Orquestra Batukadeiras is a rocket-blast of fist-pumping feminism. The show’s encore “I Rise” is a goose-bump-inducing salute to any and all who’ve been marginalized by a society that praises conformity above all else.

As Madonna marched into the audience and out the lobby doors of the Chicago Theatre Thursday night, her entire retinue in tow and chanting “I Rise,” I found myself moved to tears and thinking there may be hope for all of the Arthur Flecks in this world after all.

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With my Detroit pals at Come From Away

There’s nothin’ you can do to me that hasn’t been done
Not bulletproof, shouldn’t have to run from a gun
River of tears ran dry, let ’em run
No game that you can play with me, I ain’t one

‘Cause I’m goin’ through it, yeah
I know you see the tragic in it (alright)
Just hold on to the little bit of magic in it (yeah)
I can’t break down now
I can’t take that now (I can’t take that now)

Died a thousand times
Managed to survive (I managed to survive)
I can’t break down now


I can’t take that (I can’t take that)

I rise, I rise
(Rise) I rise up above it, up above it
(I rise) I rise, I rise
(Rise) I rise up above it all

I managed to survive
Freedom’s what you choose to do with what’s been done to you
No one can hurt you now unless you want them to (Unless you want)
No one can hurt you now unless you love ’em too
Unless you love ’em too

– Madonna, “I Rise” from Madame X

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Yes, I bought a Madame X eye patch at the souvenir stand. It did not fit MY big noggin alas.

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“Thought I belonged to a different tribe.” Madonna’s “Rebel Heart”

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

It’s rather remarkable to me that in however many years I’ve been writing this blog Madonna hasn’t been my subject matter once.

She and her music and her hijinks have been a constant in my life since my awkwardly painful junior high years.

I’ve voraciously consumed every album, video, single, remix, film (heaven help me), interview, performance, and gossipy tidbit in her storied career.

I’ve ridden the crest of every ill-spirited media wave announcing her imminent cultural demise, her death spiral into irrelevancy, or her controversy-fueled self-immolation.

And, yet, to paraphrase a classic Sondheim tune, popularized by the late, great Elaine Stritch, she’s still here.

Speaking of Sondheim, it was the bizarre confluence of that Broadway vet’s musical output and the white-hot light of Madonna at the peak of her fame in the summer of 1990, working on the Disney-produced, Warren Beatty-directed comic book film Dick Tracy, that cemented my love for the self-professed “Material Girl.”

To be honest, her first two albums Madonna and Like a Virgin set my teeth on edge in their moment (possibly because they were the dog-eared soundtrack for every snooty-pants kid at Memorial Park, a “magnet school” for gifted … and rich … kids, a place where the wheels temporarily fell off my self-esteem wagon). True Blue (her third offering, not counting soundtracks and remix compilations) was a slight improvement (we also moved to another town!), perhaps due to the influence of equally combustible but super-talented Sean Penn in her artistic and personal life. With Like a Prayer, she started to pique my interest as Madonna really began to mine the formula of agnosticism, social critique, semi-feminist moxie, and soaring dance-pop melodies that ignited my nascent musical imagination.

But it was the Dick Tracy pseudo-soundtrack I’m Breathless, a forgotten corner of Madonna’s discography (save for its inescapable throbbing uber-hit “Vogue”), that made me a fan for life. I was in Japan for a summer study abroad program sponsored by the U.S. Senate/Japanese government, back when Japan was, well, China to us, threatened as we were by their economic might. The powers-that-be threw a bunch of high school kids on a plane, and, voila, world peace?

I didn’t have a lot of spending money, no internet (obviously) nor smart phones (more obviously), so the touchstone that eased any homesick heartache was an I’m Breathless cassette tape I bought from a Japanese street vendor (I think it was legal) with all the lyrics written in kanji. (In fact, I remain a little foggy on the actual words to “Hanky Panky” to this day). I burned through two Walkmen and a host of AA batteries listening to that album, never skipping a track, but absorbing it all straight through over and over.

After that, Madonna could do no wrong (by me). My self-important, superficially-socially-conscious college days were spent torturing my roommates with repeated listens to Erotica and Bedtime Stories (the campy/naughty “I’m not your b*tch; don’t hang your sh*t on me” era – take that, smart aleck-y David Letterman), and graduate school saw Madge and me mellow a bit as she took on show tunes in the Golden Globe-winning Evita and some mystical new mommy spiritual techno hoo-ha in Ray of Light.

She (and the world) discovered Sacha Baron Cohen and the acid rock/hip hop joys of ten gallon cowboy hats with Music (“Don’t Tell Me” remains a musical/videographic highlight), and, as the 20th Century devolved in the post 9/11 chaos of the “aughts,” Madonna sported a beret and sang political rants about … pilates (?) in American Life, donned a purple/pink leotard for some Confessions on the Dance Floor, suckered us in with some poptacular Hard Candy, and left me woozy from too much MDNA.

Which brings us to the latest offering from our imperious Queen of Pop: Rebel Heart. Much has been made of the disastrous (or canny?) PR debacle leading up to her 13th (!) studio album’s release (she doesn’t count I’m Breathless in that tally for some reason – BIG mistake. HUGE.). There were numerous leaks of tracks in various degrees of completion; Madonna got a little zany with the Instagram; she had a wardrobe malfunction (no, Ms. Jackson, not that kind) that involved a ridiculously long cape and an even ridiculously longer flight of stairs; and so on. Yet, here we are at the finish line, with a more-or-less completed album, filled to the brim (19 tracks on the deluxe edition and 25 on the super-deluxe!) with potential hits (and misses).

By the way, let’s not forget Madge invented strategic “wardrobe malfunction,” in a now iconic performance from the inaugural MTV Video Music Awards, when she lost a shoe or something and, consequently, started writhing around on the stage in a white wedding dress while warbling “Like a Virgin.” 

So, with this exhaustively self-indulgent preamble ended, how is the Rebel Heart album? It’s good, and it may even be classic, but like all Madonna albums, it is wildly uneven with some spectacularly transporting hooks and melodies, a healthy dose of sass, and some head smackingly cringe-worthy lyrics. What many critics now hail as a masterpiece (Erotica) was in its day (1992!) similarly received – an overlong mish-mash of dance, pop, balladry that ran the gamut from sincerely poignant to sincerely filthy to sincerely odd. Rebel Heart feels like a bookend to that now legendary compilation.

Rebel Heart‘s strongest moments (consistent with Madonna’s track record) marry heartache, petulance, and swirling disco, from the soaring, gospel-tinged first single “Living for Love” to upcoming single “Ghosttown,” a crunchy, ominous, totally dance-able ode to isolation/devotion. The album’s sillier moments work for me as well, including the anti-misogyny, reggae-lite screed “Unapologetic B*tch” to the similarly titled yet totally antithetical party anthem “B*tch, I’m Madonna” (with a great guest rhyme from most-likely-to-inherit-the-crown Nicki Minaj).

Madonna crashes the gates again of her own sexual minstrelsy with a clutch of tracks that veer from the obscene to the perverse (“Body Shop,” “Holy Water,” “Best Night,” and the funniest of the bunch “S.E.X.”). At first listen to these, I wanted to jump out of my skin as there is minimal effort for metaphor but maximal effort for shock and awe. Yet, as I gave them a second listen (still not liking them much), I realized that Madonna’s tongue was firmly in cheek (sounds kinda like one of her lyrics, actually), so these four may grow on me … like a fungus.

Gone are any aspirations to play in the bass-thumping pop sandbox of the Lady Gagas or Katy Perrys of the world (though I think those critiques have been greatly overstated) as Madonna happily reintroduces ballads to her repertoire, standouts being the shimmering “Messiah” (where religion becomes a clever proxy for humanistic self-actualization), caustic “HeartBreakCity” (I do love when Madonna gives two-timing, preening dudes a dressing down), and the capstone strum-and-drang of title track “Rebel Heart.”

It is this last number (inexplicably only available on the deluxe edition) that makes the entire nearly 90 minute running time worth the journey. With this ditty, Madonna offers arguably her most revelatory (and witty) lyrics – Madonna the songwriter is often overshadowed by Madonna the showman, but this track wraps the thesis of Rebel Heart (the album) with a heart-rending bow:

I lived my life like a masochist
Hearing my father say: “Told you so, told you so”
“Why can’t you be like the other girls?”
I said: “Oh no, that’s not me and I don’t think that it’ll ever be”

Thought I belonged to a different tribe
Walking alone
Never satisfied, satisfied
Tried to fit in but it wasn’t me,
I said: “Oh no, I want more, that’s not what I’m looking for”

 

And you’ve succeeded, Ms. Ciccone. Keep up the fine work, Madonna – looking forward to keeping you as the primary soundtrack to my ever-evolving life …
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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.