It's a stormy night in Times Square and my fluffy blue dress has been considerably wilted by sheets of angry rain. A throng of onlookers joust each other with umbrellas, swarming outside Paradise Club in hopes of spotting a glimpse of the mysterious, saintly Madonna.
Late September, the pop icon held a star-studded premiere party for her new concert film, Madame X, out now exclusively on Paramount+. The movie is co-directed by Nuno Xico and Sasha Kasiuha, documenting the experience of the Madame X World Tour on and off-stage. For a worldwide pop extravaganza, the show's unique in that Madonna chose small, intimate theater venues instead of arenas to connect more deeply with her fans.
"Sharing my vision with global audiences has been profoundly meaningful to me," Madonna said in a statement. "The opportunity to bring its message and the incandescent artistry of all involved to an even wider audience comes at a time when music is so deeply needed to remind us of the sacred bond of our shared humanity."
Filmed in Lisbon, Portugal, over the course of her six-night residency at the Coliseu dos Recreios, Madame X places the viewer front and center in the crowd to witness Madonna's unparalleled live spectacle in all her leather-clad glory.
Leathery spectacles are abundant offscreen at the premiere night, as well. After successfully navigating my way through a wall of publicists and security, I'm walked down a long, dark corridor toward a shiny steel elevator. I've intentionally arrived about 40 minutes after the cocktail reception begins, hoping to avoid the awkward early stages of a party before anyone who's anyone shows up.
My phone, like everyone else's attending, is locked in a bag until the screening concludes (Mommy's orders, I'm assuming). Up the elevator I go, into a hallway lit only by hundreds of candles, flickering from the floor to illuminate a squadron of blondes in black trench coats and sunglasses, each holding a different tray: one contains flutes of champagne, another popcorn, another "organic" chocolate. I graciously help myself to something of everything and proceed toward the large screening room.
Ushered to my seat, it quickly becomes clear I've underestimated everyone else's adherence to the time instructed on the invitation. I'm at this event alone, surrounded by fashion's most unapproachable chic glitterati. I kill 10 minutes heading to the bathroom and back (graciously ushered towards the women's by a heroic doorman), picking up a dirty martini with a blue cheese olive as I stroll. Finally, I settle in and make myself appear extremely interested in the Salvador Dalì-inspired murals stretching across the walls.
Madonna's fandom is strong: gays in vintage tour tees are already squealing with anticipation, cocktails threatening to slosh over the side of glasses. Eventually, more celebrities file in: Antoni Porowski arrives with a tall man; I realize Drew Barrymore is at a booth behind me talking animatedly to Christian Siriano; the actress who plays Zora on the new Gossip Girl slouches past in an oversized hoodie. Someone arrives with what can only be described as a veil of rusty nails over their face. A long-haired twink pouts and flounces through the melee, knowing his sexual power.
With each further moment spent staring at a painting of an ox in a dungeon, my hopes of ever breaking my silence and speaking to another human exponentially decline. I'm given a gift at last: a hot gay guy in a wide-brimmed hat tells me I look beautiful. "Thank you!" I respond curtly, wanting to invite further conversation, but instead managing to fill the air around me with palpable anxiety.
Photo courtesy of BFA
Suddenly, to my delight, I spot Symone, America's reigning drag superstar. She's at a table with Aquaria and nightlife kingpin Ty Sunderland. Not long after that, though well past the scheduled screening time of 9 PM, the room erupts into loud cheers: Madonna has arrived at last.
Her tits look incredible. She's absolutely sporting cornrows, but no one seems to be clocking that. She gives a short, funny speech telling the drunk fashionistas to (paraphrasing here), "Sit down and shut the fuck up! The movie's about to begin! Art is about disturbing the peace, motherfucker!" And then it's showtime.
Madonna's a luminary, obviously, and Madame X continues to cement her legacy as one of the greats. The emotional and conceptual journey behind her stage show is mind-blowing. As someone who has regrettably never seen Madonna live, I kept coming back to just how much consideration went into every detail of her performance, even as she managed to remain off-the-cuff, smoking with standup comedians in the front row and swigging beer.
The film features songs from Madonna's 14th studio album of the same name, which debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200. Footage of the World Tour is intercut with clips from her time in Lisbon, where she recorded some of Madame X, and B-roll of protests and demonstrations happening around the world. Her dedication to sociopolitical causes is on full display throughout the film, which prominently features a typewriter banging out a lengthy James Baldwin quote: "Artists are here to disturb the peace," a sentiment Madonna's keen to reiterate throughout the evening.
Madame X touches on race, women's rights, gender, sexuality, climate change and gun control. A Portuguese batuque group, the all-female Orquestra Batukadeiras, gets invited to perform for Madonna's audience. Maluma appears digitally and continues to set the bar for Sexiest Person on the Planet. Daughter Lourdes performs an intense dance number, projected and intensely magnified onstage. A distorted version of "Vogue" plays, in which the clashing of the typewriter gives a more ominous tone to Madonna's iconic song.
Above all, Madame X's film and accompanying NYC premiere seem to underscore the immense staying power of Madonna's decades-long career. "The most controversial thing I have ever done," she muses at the film's opening, "is to stick around."
Her filmmaking career will continue with a forthcoming biopic, which she's set to direct. Diablo Cody worked with Madonna on the script, and the pair finished a final draft this spring, despite conflicting reports that Cody had exited the project due to creative differences. After hearing Madonna wistfully recall her humble origins, arriving in New York broke and alone, anticipation for a filmed version of her life story seems to be reaching a fever pitch.
The premiere devolved into a dance party around 2 AM. Needing to board a flight the following morning, I couldn't stay much longer (read: I had no friends there). As I left the building, I covered my face with my chipped nails, imagining paparazzi flashing around me, though in reality there were just a few NYU kids trying to sneak in and some Times Square crazies yelling colloquially to the heavens.
While waiting for the E train to arrive, I listened to one of my all-time favorite Madonna songs: "Don't Tell Me," off her turn-of-the-millennium Music album. Its music video is one of the all-time great pieces of gay art ever made: Madonna slouching down a miniature treadmill in front of a projection of a desert highway; four erotic cowboys doing yeehaw choreo; mechanical bull realness; Madonna sensually pouring dirt on herself.
I got to thinking about how two decades after that, and [redacted] decades after her self-titled debut, Madonna continues to give the gays, girls, and theys plenty of horny pop pageantry. During her Q&A, she spoke about how happy she was for Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion's success with "WAP," and that she, many years earlier, had also been explicit about female desire, but received violent cultural vitriol for it. Of course, even today, for a woman to assert her sexual yearning causes heinous conservative backlash. But without Madonna paving the way, we would certainly be much further from the erotic liberation so desperately needed in this age of resurging Puritanism surrounding women's bodies.
The E train comes and I board it, sidestepping a rat. I pretend to be one of Madonna's cowgays as I clutch the train pole. So what if I was an awkward outcast at tonight's buzzy premiere? If those fashion twunks could see me now, feebly recreating a rodeo line dance as "Don't Tell Me" blasts in my headphones, they might just give me another chance. Because, to quote the title track of Madonna's 2000 country-pop Joanne equivalent: "Music... makes the people... come together... yeah."
Photo courtesy of CBS/ Paramount+
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