Alice Neel painted portraits of her neighbors in East Harlem. They were often people of color and members of the working class; the kind of people who didn’t usually have their portraits painted by fine artists. Hilton Als, the art critic for The New Yorker, is curating Neel’s retrospective at a New York gallery and recently pointed out in an interview that many of Neel’s subjects have a look of pride. “It’s an honor to be paid attention to,” he said, “to have someone really concentrate on you.”
The cast of the new documentary Strike a Pose also carry themselves with a look of pride. Twenty-six years ago, these men were the backup dancers in Madonna’s world-famous Blonde Ambition World Tour. With its “Express Yourself” manifesto and boundary-pushing social agenda, the tour was an instant cultural phenomenon and became immortalized in 1991’s Truth or Dare, one of the best music documentaries of all time. Of course, Truth or Dare didn’t tell the whole story, and that’s where Strike a Pose picks up. It’s a brilliant idea, and while its message is admirable, the film simply isn’t interesting or urgent enough to take up almost 90-minutes of viewers’ attention. In the end, its deliberately emotional soundtrack and privileging of talk over action results in exactly the kind of blandness for which the dancers would have once rolled their eyes.
While Madonna’s life and career continued to soar after Blonde Ambition, the same cannot be said for her dancers. This comes as no surprise. Celebrity is a nasty thing and it’s common knowledge that any pop star has to make some rude, selfish and difficult choices to get ahead. In this case, the documentary asserts that Madonna stole voguing from the black, gay underground; that she used her dancers for their style and personalities and purposely lost touch with them afterward; that she was unwilling or unable to reconcile her fame with their financial struggles, depression or drug problems. When a few of the dancers sued Madonna after the release of Truth Or Dare for making them feel “ashamed and caught off-guard,” she cut off most, if not all of them, from her life completely.
But Strike a Pose isn’t about Madonna. It doesn’t waste time criticizing her and that’s a good thing. In fact, the film’s archival footage of Madonna is actually quite flattering. Directors Ester Gould and Reijer Zwann show the pop star mothering her dancers, standing up for the alleged “obscenity” of her performances and speaking out against AIDS. The film’s true enemy is silence — the self-imposed silence that so many of the dancers had privately clung to out of fear, insecurity or shame. By following the men in their daily lives, it hopes to draw them out from the shadows and let them speak for themselves.
Now, with the dancers having been forgotten for decades, the documentary’s main goal is to give these men a chance to share their side of the story. Salim is the only dancer whose story stands out from the rest. He was an immigrant with a strict Muslim father when he was invited on the Blonde Ambition World Tour. Along with the other criminally handsome, young men, he lived, worked and snuggled with Madonna 24/7. Yet it wasn’t all fun and sexy sleepover games. As Salim recounts in Strike a Pose, he was diagnosed with HIV during the tour. The news was crushing, and even though he went on after the tour to find a partner, receive the proper medications and build a career for himself as a dance instructor, up until the filming of Strike a Pose, he had told only three people of his diagnosis.
Like Alice Neel’s portraits, Strike a Pose gives its subject the attention they deserve. The men return the favor by sharing their stories with honesty, forthrightness and fantastic attitudes. They speak of their gratitude for being “plucked from nonexistence” and their sorrow, for the fantasy life of the tour having to end. While the message of the film is admirable, phrases like “Be proud, because everyone is someone” are broad, and when they’re repeated, they devolve into meaninglessness. Strike a Pose succeeds in reminding us that Madonna’s fame came at the expense of others, but this is a lesson most viewers will already be familiar with. When the cast reunites in the film’s climax, Strike a Pose feels like watching someone else’s high school reunion. Recollecting lessons learned is not the same as actual learning. Gould and Zwann are eager to show these men cry, but even when they’re crying on camera, they still seem far away. So, it’s ironic that a film about the same group of men can make the same mistake twice: sharing their stories but lacking the authenticity to make such stories feel real. “Express yourself” is a wonderful command, though it’s not yet fulfilled.
Strike a Pose opens January 18 at New York City’s IFC Center and January 20 at Laemmle’s Ahrya Fine Arts Theatre in Los Angeles.
Erica Peplin (@ericapeplin) is a writer and editor for Spectrum Culture. She lives in New York.