The life story of Madonna Louise Ciccone is one of the most interesting real-life narratives of any twentieth-century star. From her Michigan origins to her world-conquering career as “Queen of Pop” and her continual, Bowie-esque reinventions, she has lasted decades in a notoriously fickle industry through a combination of chutzpah, publicity savvy and talent, to say nothing of allying herself with some extremely talented collaborators along the way. “It’d make a great film,” people have said repeatedly.
But what they should have quickly added is, “But Madonna herself must not write and direct it.”
It is a problem that only people at the highest, Olympian levels of fame face, but nobody will say no to them, no matter how stupid their ideas. Instead, their every whim is catered to, even the obviously imbecilic ones. Madonna has always been among the most visually conscious of musicians, planning everything from her stagewear to music videos with minute concentration, and has worked with everyone from David Fincher to Chris Cunningham. And yet her efforts as a film director have been staggeringly, punishingly poor.
Her 2008 debut Filth and Wisdom, a comedy-drama about a Ukrainian cross-dresser, was described by the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane thus: “In technical terms, more professional productions than this are filmed and cut on iMovie, by ten-year-olds, a thousand times a day.” It made less than half a million dollars at the box office and barely received a cinematic release. Her 2011 follow-up W.E., a big-budget account of the love affair between Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII, was bedeviled by production staff and actors leaving the film, citing either “artistic differences” or “creative differences”; one actress, Margo Stilley, departed, saying enigmatically that Madonna “is really something… I wish the cast luck because they are all really talented.” Reviews were again terrible (The Hollywood Reporter described it caustically as “embalmed from any dramatic point of view”) and it flopped once again. Madonna has not directed another film since. Until now.
It has been reported that the likes of Florence Pugh and Ozark’s Julia Garner are in the running to play her in the biopic, which Madonna has written and will direct. The contenders are taking part in a terrifying-sounding “Madonna bootcamp,” which consist of eleven-hour choreography sessions, singing auditions and one-on-one readings with Madonna herself. Apparently, this process has been going on for months, and once the fortunate star has been chosen, there will be further months of horrendous training before the film can begin filming.
The only question that I have is why any established performer would actually want to take on such a thankless task in such miserable circumstances: are there not other roles on offer, in which they might work with less authoritarian directors? One can only imagine “script discussions” in which an actor’s opinion is immediately shot down by the director saying “that’s what happened to me, and I won’t have any disagreement about it.”
Madonna announced that she will be writing the script because “a bunch of people have tried to write movies about me, but they’re always men.” But there have already been “artistic disagreements,” with Madonna’s mooted co-writer Diablo Cody choosing to leave the project (to be replaced by Erin Cressida Wilson), and doubtless there will be many more. Given the dismal scripts for Filth and Wisdom and W.E., expectations are low, but reality can always surpass them.
As an admirer of much of Madonna’s music and general chutzpah, I can only hope that this film never comes to pass. Her embarrassing recent social media shots of herself posing semi-naked no longer feel edgy or provocative, but like the actions of someone desperate to stay relevant long after their heyday has passed.
If Madonna: The Movie ends up being a two-hour version of the brief clips that she uploads to Instagram, it will be a deeply embarrassing coda to a great career, rather than the triumphant eulogy that she is doubtless hoping for. So it seems appropriate to quote the immortal lines from “Papa Don’t Preach” — “what I need right now is some good advice, please.” We can only hope she gets it.