GAZE 2016: Strike A Pose
Directors: Ester Gould, Reijer Zwaan Featuring: Luis Camacho, Oliver Crumes, Salim Gauwloos, Jose Xtravaganza, Kevin Stea, Carlton Wilborn Running Time: 83 minutes
It is always worth keeping in mind that despite depicting events that happened in reality, documentaries present a narrative like any other kind of film. At the time it was released, Madonna: Truth or Dare was the highest-grossing documentary of all time, depicted a world tour decried as ‘Satanic’ by the Vatican and for a time made icons and inspirations out of the Blond Ambition tour’s charismatic and cut-from-marble dancers. The film actively courted controversy, having the audacity to show young men, partying, kissing each other (“even” wails a news report) and hanging with one of the world’s biggest and most divisive stars. That documentary had one narrative, now there is another. Strike A Pose allows the reality depicted in Truth or Dare a victory lap of sorts before showing another side of the events that played out at that time, as well as showing how the men involved in the film have been affected in the years since.
Strike A Pose opens with archive footage of the Blond Ambition tour, followed by talking heads of the dancers today-all but one gay-speaking with enthusiasm and fondness about the good old days. Some are instructors, some are waiters but they all remain exceptionally talented dancers. They talk about Madonna as a maternal figure, about how they became a family and how the experience was genuinely meaningful to them. Oliver, a hip-hop dancer without traditional training, was the straight man of the male dancers and talks about how their time together ended his homophobia as a younger and brasher man and several of the dancers read letters from fans about how they were inspired to accept themselves. Front-loading the nostalgia is a smart move on the part of directors Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan, though these stories are genuinely affecting, keeping them all together at the start creates the impression that Strike A Pose is going to be rose-tinted, resulting in a greater impact when some of the harsher aspects of reality come to light.
Though Madonna’s brand was all about barrier breaking, 1991 was a time when there were a lot less barriers for her than there were for her dancers. At the height of the AIDS epidemic, three of the dancers were diagnosed with HIV before the beginning of the tour and were unable to tell each other or Madonna about it. One of the dancers, Gabriel Trupin, died of AIDS in 1995 and the documentary gains much of its poignancy in giving these men a voice but having to rely on Trupin’s mother instead. She describes her son’s discomfort at Truth or Dare‘s famous gay kiss, brushed aside by Madonna: “It wasn’t a statement that he wanted to make – it was her statement”. Madonna moved on from her world tour family, resulting in lawsuits, falls from the limelight and battles with addiction. Neither Strike A Pose nor its subjects are condemnatory towards the singer, but relevant questions about the co-opting and appropriation of gay people and gay culture are raised. The film occasionally struggles with balancing the stories of seven dancers, tying them together in the end with a reunion straight from the ‘moving but contrived’ playbook of reality television. It help that it has good subjects, the dancers are charming; honest but not bitter and their insights as older, wiser men help make Strike A Pose an interesting look at what happens to those who are caught in the wake of a megastar.