MADONNA had a dream that Mikhail S. Gorbachev came to see her show. "My first reaction," she says wickedly in her new concert documentary, "Truth or Dare," "was that Warren Beatty would be so jealous that I got to meet him first!" Probably, but no doubt Mr. Beatty would understand why Madonna's star power has brought her serious attention and international renown. As the apotheosis of brilliant artifice, flagrant exhibitionism and self-conscious celebrity, Madonna has succeeded in taking on real importance. She perfectly mirrors the troubling pop-cultural climate over which she holds sway.
From that standpoint, "Truth or Dare" is at the very least a potent conversation piece. It can also be seen as a clever, brazen, spirited self-portrait, an ingeniously contrived extension of Madonna's public personality and a studied glimpse into what, in the case of most other pop luminaries, would be at least a quasi-hidden realm. In the case of Madonna, who is even filmed gossiping in the restroom and visiting her mother's grave, no such sacrosanct territory is shown to exist. Nothing is too private for Madonna to flaunt in public.
There is one notable exception. "Get out! I'm having a business talk. Goodbye!" Madonna shouts at the camera crew early in the film. But when it comes to sexual posturing or matters that might deeply embarrass friends or family members, she remains thoroughly (and often cheerfully) unfettered. True, perhaps, to the spirit of the times, "Truth or Dare" turns commerce and real intimacy into those rare subjects that are off limits, and it exhibits calculatingly full abandon about confessions of any other kind. Bear in mind, as a point of reference, that this is a film in which Mr. Beatty emerges as the voice of sanity, at least for a moment or two. Seen only briefly, as the star's companion at the time of her 1990 "Blond Ambition" tour, Mr. Beatty puts up with considerable teasing abuse ("And don't hide back there, Warren, get over here") before being dragged into Madonna's limelight. Once revealed, he looks terribly nonplused by the kind of attention to which Madonna, her assistants, her relatives and even her throat doctor are routinely subjected by the film crew. "The light's good here, don't worry," Madonna taunts her lover. But for a moment Mr. Beatty's flinching makes a lot more sense than her inexhaustible bravado.
"Truth or Dare" combines galvanizing, well-photographed color scenes of Madonna's onstage act with grainy black-and-white glimpses of her offstage one, sometimes making interesting efforts to reconcile the two. Dreading a concert date in her home city, Detroit, Madonna brings her father on stage in honor of his birthday and playfully bows down before him. Later that night, backstage, she appears unnerved by having to talk with him on a more personal basis. "Dad, you can come in, but I've got to get dressed," she says, although her black underwear has served as a costume before a concert audience of thousands. In the end, as with most of Madonna's encounters with figures from her past (as seen here), the visitor is made to look foolish and the camera has the last laugh.
"Truth or Dare," as directed proficiently and energetically by Alek Keshishian, balances the deliberate cruelty of Madonna's run-ins with the actor Kevin Costner (she puts a finger down her throat as if to gag), a childhood girlfriend ("When you see the show, you'll forgive me for not talking to you") and a brother whom she succeeds in avoiding ("Dad says he went to alcohol rehab to avoid going to jail," she says about him) with scenes intended to express her tender side. Much is made of her role as self-appointed den mother to the male dancers in her entourage, and to her insistence on a prayer before each show.
"My little babies are feeling fragile," she says of the dancers at one such session as the group is threatened with arrest on obscenity charges. Madonna is also seen briskly settling a dispute between gay dancers and the lone straight one in her entourage. She goes shopping with the whole group in tow ("Earrings don't make people look beautiful -- money makes people look beautiful," she declares at Chanel), and she frolicks in bed with each dancer individually, in a manner that seems playful but leaves no doubt as to who is the boss. While playing the game of the title, she orders two male dancers to kiss and another to expose himself, while she, in the spirit of sportsmanship, pretends to perform oral sex on a bottle of Vichy water.
Male pop stars are often seen demonstrating the kind of manipulative behavior and sexual intimidation that Madonna displays on such occasions. (She herself describes these male dancers' touching naivete early in the film and is often seen playing upon it later.) Indeed, she brings to mind the Bob Dylan of the 1967 D. A. Penne baker film "Don't Look Back" in her ability to appear elusive, dangerous, and at all times absolutely in control of those around her. Madonna obviously knows, as Mr. Dylan also must have, that the final effect of such behavior is more magnetic than it is off-putting. The image of her that emerges here, however contrived and sometimes poisonous, is in the end as seductive as she means it to be.
"Truth or Dare" makes its share of unfortunate missteps, as when it strains its ingenuousness to the breaking point by allowing a wistful Madonna to reveal the love of her life ("Sean") before what will surely be an audience of millions. She is also allowed to protest too much about the political and social seriousness of her work, and to express an improbable degree of surprise when her church-baiting show runs afoul of the Vatican. The film also falters when the performance that is under police scrutiny is so confusingly overedited that it is unclear what went on, or when Madonna's own voice-overs try too hard to graft dramatic shape onto what is essentially just a tour film.
There is also a regrettable closing montage compiling some of Madonna's various images, which is accompanied by unattributed and sometimes fatuous thoughts about her. ("I just feel like she's a little girl lost in a storm sometimes.") Yet one of the film's most sensible insights about its subject also emerges from this same series of observations. "She has a busy life," someone says. "And she's definitely on a race against time." It's a race that, as "Truth or Dare" makes evident, she will do anything to win.
"Truth or Dare" is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It includes profanity, brief nudity and sexual suggestiveness. Truth or Dare Directed by Alek Keshishian; directors of photography, Robert Leacock, Doug Nichol, Christophe Lazenberg, Marc Reshovsky, Daniel Pearl and Toby Phillips; produced by Ken Clawson and Jay Roewe; distributed by Miramax Films . Running time: 118 minutes. This film is rated R. WITH: Madonna