Madonna: Celebration – The Video Collection, disc 1

Madonna - Celebration 1Synopsis: 2 DVD collection features 47 videos, including unedited and never before seen footage of ‘Justify My Love’ along with 18 Madonna videos to be released on a 2 disc DVD compilation for the very first time including ‘Into The Groove’ and ‘Give It 2 Me’ as well as the just completed video of Madonna’s new single ‘Celebration.’

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Madonna: Celebration – The Video Collection, disc 1 7.5

eyelights: Express Yourself. Like a Prayer. Like a Virgin. Material Girl.
eyesores: Deeper and Deeper. True Blue.

“Like a virgin, touched for the very first time”

The first time I was ever exposed to Madonna was late one night, likely a Saturday or Sunday, when I stumbled upon a small spotlight of her videos on some local TV station. She had just released “Like a Virgin”, and I was mesmerized. At that age, then 11, I had never seen anyone as beautiful, as sexy, as exotic as this creature. Or at least it felt that way in that moment.

I seem to recall seeing “Lucky Star” as well, but otherwise I think that my brain stopped registering almost everything, fogged up as it was. She had gotten under my skin and pinned herself to my mind. First chance I got (Was it that evening? The next morning?) I spoke to my friend Scott about it. He had heard one of her songs, but hadn’t seen the latest video. We traded stories.

It was the beginning of a long-time infatuation with Madge.

For a while, there was no one else but Madonna. Everywhere we turned, there she was. Once in a while Cyndi Lauper turned up, but (proving all critics wrong) her star soon faded and Madonna was the only one left. And Michael Jackson. And Prince (although I wasn’t a fan yet). Madonna saturated our culture with her brazen sexuality and iconic stylistic choices.

Not only were her singles in high rotation and were virtually impossible to ignore, but every new video or television appearance was a revelation for us. And yet, I soon discovered how fickle I could be: every album I was excited about would be followed by one that left me indifferent. And so it was that, after ‘Like a Virgin’ (and that era’s singles), I could barely be bothered with ‘True Blue’.

Then came ‘Like a Prayer’, which was til then her best yet – and, for a while, remained that way. She made a fascinating side-step with ‘I’m Breathless’, a woefully under-appreciated soundtrack, released the phenomenal ‘The Immaculate Collection’ which correctly gave us a few remixes and a couple of new tracks to keep the albums alive. Then there was ‘Truth or Dare’.

Madonna was at her peak. She had Blonde Ambition.

Then came her next misstep. Following the controversial hit single “Justify My Love”, she decided to push the envelope further and released her ‘Sex’ book and a bondage-themed video for new single “Erotica”. Its album did okay and it spawned many singles, but she seemed to be in a tailspin then, making a few worrying public appearances (notably, on David Letterman’s show).

But we were still paying attention, however tenuously. And we watched her videos, old and new. And I always dreamed of having all of them collected in one place. In recent years, I even went so far as to download most of them (in crappy download quality, naturally) and collecting them on a few DVDs for my own enjoyment. Only a few of her videos were released on scattered DVDs.

However, in 2009, in celebration of 25 years in the business, Warner Bros. finally released a more comprehensive collection of her videos. Called ‘Celebration’, it features 47 of her videos, selected by Madonna and her fans via her website – a large number of them making their debut on home video (they will be denoted by an asterix at the end of the title during my review)

The cover, ironically, was commissioned from Mr. Brainwash, and features an altered picture of Madonna during her ‘You Can Dance’ days. I’m not sure of the actual intention, but, to me, this is the ultimate acknowledgement of how fabricated a celebrity is, and of the way in which Madonna  built her career on packaging and re-packaging herself for mass consumption.

Needless to say, despite missing a dozen or so videos and being of questionable picture quality (20+ videos per DVD means lots of compression), I was rather eager to get this set: it would mean an instant Madonna video mix – and it would be superior to the companion CD collection, which featured a bunch of neutered radio edits instead of the original tracks.

Due to the overwhelming length of this collection, I cautiously decided to tackle each disc separately.

(nota bene: I subjectively rated the songs and videos separately, in the following format: song/video)

1. Burning Up*: “I’m not like the others, I have no shame”, Madonna sings in her first single. She warned us, and it was the de facto motto of her whole career. We bought into wholesale for a while, too. This is a simple pop song about lust. It’s good, but not great. Nice bass line, though. There’s something about her vocals here that remind me of Gwen Stefani. The video is rudimentary, with Madonna singing to the camera, while some guy is driving around. The cool bit is when she’s lying in a boat and the car drives by, in the water. I wonder what their budget was for this. At the end she’s driving the car – not sure why.

This is notable in that Madonna already has her early look down: dyed blonde with roots showing, tons of bangles, chains, and a pair of shades. She’s a bit dispassionate for someone who’s “on fire”, though, but she goes through motions nicely. And she manages to inject sex while she’s posing in the middle of the road, so her performance isn’t all bad. 7.0/6.75

2. Lucky Star: This is a total downgrade from the previous number on all counts: the song is decent, but it’s really basic and unsastisfying. After a b+w shot (which bookends the video), the clip consists merely of Madonna on a white set with two male dancers. It’s all dancing, and it feels both choreographed and improvised, loose. I’m amazed at how cold her gaze is. Is that intentional, or is she inexpressive? She’s meant to be giving “the look”, but it feels vacant, fake. 6.25/6.5

3. Borderline: Another basic pop song, based in keyboards and a moderately hooky chorus. The video shows her on/off romance with a local boy. Eventually, she’s approached by a photographer who offers to take glamour shots of her. Naturally, she leaves with him and, after a few shoots, they have a love affair. She becomes a cover girl. The boy regrets his loss and they eventually make up. What I like is that there are moments in which Madonna feels real here, natural, during her interactions with the other youth on the street. Perhaps this is because it’s less staged, more familiar? And yet she still stares at the camera coldly. Shivers. 6.5/6.75

4. Like a Virgin: Rooted in those first few synthetic basslines, the song hooks you in right away. The production is fuller, richer, the melodies catchier. It’s no wonder that it became such a hit and that we couldn’t stop playing it at the time. Had Madonna continued with her earlier sound she would indeed have proven critics right, but she honed her sound and her image at the right time.

The video is iconic: she’s visiting Venice and dancing on a gondola, while a lion is wandering about. There are shots of her in a white dress, in a vacated mansion with white furniture covers everywhere. She looks beautiful and sexy at once (it probably helps that she crawls on the floor lustily – it was quite the sight at the time). She eventually meets up with man in lion mask and leaves with him on a gondola. 7.5/8.0

5. Material Girl: The video begins with two men discussing footage of Madonna, talking about her star quality. One of them is a director and he becomes fascinated with her. He visits her and overhears her talking with a friend about a suitor sending her expensive gifts, how she’s not impressed by this. He tries to catch her attention but it doesn’t work, but he eventually wins her over by buying her a simple bouquet and taking her out in a beat up pick-up truck.

This is all intercut with the footage he was watching initially, which is a rip-off of Marilyn Monroe’s number “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” from ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’. Madonna is beautiful in that piece, even though she’s all glammed up, and the set and choreography are simple but nice. It was her second-best video for years after “Like a Virgin”. Too bad she can’t lip-synch correctly.

The song is incredibly catchy but, in retrospect, the lyrics are wince-inducing what with their shallowness. Thankfully, the video suggests that she has a professional image which is different from her personal preferences, making it palatable. Otherwise it plays into the notion that all women want is money and shiny things. Yuck. It’s such a catchy song, though, that you can get lost in it anyway. 7.5/8.25

6. Crazy for You*: This is a track from the soundtrack to the 1985 picture ‘Vision Quest’. It’s an okay ballad, but it feels dated at this point. The video played all the time when it was released. It consists of footage from the picture intercut with her singing in a neon-lit cabaret club. There’s not much to it, really. I can’t believe I still haven’t seen this film, despite Linda Fiorentino‘s presence in it. I’ll have to remedy that someday. 6.75/6.5

7. Into the Groove*: Not originally on ‘Like a Virgin’, this track featured in the Madonna-starring motion picture ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’. But it wasn’t on the soundtrack, so her album was rereleased with this single on it. It’s a mindless song akin to “Lucky Star”, but it has a rich bass and keyboard underside. The video consists of footage from the picture intercut with Madonna dancing in a club with some guy. This is the Madonna that I and many of us grew up with. 7.0/6.75

8. Live to Tell*: This is a simple ballad, taken from her third album, ‘True Blue’. It’s unassuming and it holds up even now. The bridge is nice, rooted in drums and guitars, but the video version fade outs awkwardly. The video consists mostly of footage from ‘At Close Range’ (featuring Sean Penn and Christopher Walken) intercut with shots of Madonna sitting on a chair, alone on a blackened stage, in a flowery dress, singing. Her look has a simple mid-western quality, her first significant stylistic change since the beginning. Boy… it still amazes me just how dispassionate she can be. 7.5/6.5

9. Papa Don’t Preach: Also from ‘True Blue’, there’s real passion in Madonna’s voice, like never before. The story is of a girl who tells her father that she’s gotten pregnant and wants his blessing. Her vocals sell the song, because it feels like she means it. It’s not interesting musically, it’s a simple pop song, but her vocals and the lyrics are solid.

The video takes place in New York. It shows Madonna meeting a greaser on the street and falling in love with him, intercut with footage of her at home with her dad (played by Danny Aiello). There’s also shots of her on a dark set, dancing alone, animated. At one point she tells her dad about her trouble; he’s initially shocked, upset, but he ends up reaching out to her and giving her a hug.

This features the most substantial change in look for Madonna thus far: for this video she sported a short bleached hairdo and wore simple jeans and shirt. It’s not a look that I liked then and I like it even less now. What doesn’t help it is that she dressed simply, but her face is all made up, a contrast that doesn’t work one bit. You can’t really have both. 7.5/7.75

10. True Blue*: This one starts with shots of three girls shaking their moneymakers. Then we find ourselves on a sparse ’50s-styled set with a lamp post, car and diner on it. Madonna and the three girls are all wearing ’50s inspired clothing and go through a horrible choreography. It’s all a bit bubblegum given the previous videos and image that Madonna had. And I hate the bleach blonde short hair look. Ick. The song is good, really, even if it is bubblegum too, but the video kills it – it’s better on the album. 6.75/6.25

11. Open Your Heart: This is a really catchy pop/dance number, even if it’s dated by the keyboard flourishes now. To me, this has always been the highlight of ‘True Blue’. The video consists of a kid trying to get into a peep show to see Madonna (obviously he’s turned back). A variety of other men are inside watching her do her routine. She’s in fishnet and a black one-piece bustier with long gloves. Meanwhile, the boy stares at pictures in the entrance and dances in front of a mirror. Madonna quits her gig and leaves with the boy, dancing in the street together. I was mesmerized when I first saw this, but not so much now; her routine is merely alright. 7.75/7.0

12. La Isla Bonita: I always disliked this song for some reason. It might be the Cuban flavour that bothered me, because it’s so out of place on a Madonna album – especially ‘True Blue’. Actually, I might enjoy it if it wasn’t Madonna: the rhythm and guitar work are infectious. The video is in old Cuban town. Madonna’s hair is long, unbleached, and she’s wearing a tight white dress. She looks out the window at a long-haired guitar player on the street and dances in her candle-lit room while wearing a red Spanish dress. By the end, people are dancing in the street and she comes out to dance with them. She’s playful, feels real. That’s nice to see. 7.0/6.75

13. Who’s That Girl*: This is a song culled from the soundtrack to the 1987 Madonna film of the same name. It’s total fluff; it’s nothing special. At the time, Madonna had fallen off my radar for a bit, after the so-so servings from ‘True Blue’. And this movie looked like a joke – especially after the widely-panned ‘Shanghai Surprise’. This seemed even worse, and I have yet to see it.

The title is appropriate because Madonna changed her look yet again: she has short brown hair and is dressed in an oversize grey suit jacket with hat. She’s on a cheap rooftop set with a couple of kids and a guy. She’s drawn inside by them and finds herself in an esoteric trinket shop with a fortune teller. Then a cartoon version of herself (as she looks in the movie) pops up and Madonna and her friends all dance. Basically, this was an excuse for intercutting footage from the movie. Lots of it. And it really looks like crap. But maybe they had fun making it. 6.5/6.5

14. Like a Prayer: When Madonna returned with this single, the leading track from her new album of the same name, she was coming out of a tumultuous marriage to Sean Penn, and it’s quite possible that those years of struggle made her more self-reflective. Suddenly she had things to say, personal things and ideological things too. Most of us were blown away with the album, and it remains one of my favourites of hers. The song itself is terrific: it starts with a great intro that featuring an electric guitar fade-in that abruptly cuts to a choir – a choir which takes on a great presence throughout the song. It starts almost a capella, and then turns into a dance number, building up to a climax with a full choir and band by the end. It’s a great pop number.

The video tells the story of a woman (Madonna) who was witness to a crime for which the wrong man was arrested (it’s suggested that this was due to racial profiling). She didn’t say anything at the time and, in her guilt, takes refuge in a church. In the church she finds the statue of a black saint and kisses his feet, which brings him to life. She picks up a knife and cuts herself, leaving stigmata-like wounds on her hands. She is also shown dancing in front of burning crosses (which some associated with the KKK). She also makes out with a black man and dances with a choir in the church, falling to the female preacher’s feet. She looks completely released in that moment, dancing with abandon. It was a rare moment of realism from Madonna so far. The video ends with her going to the police station to make a statement, thereby getting the wrongfully-accused man released – followed by a curtain call by the whole cast. There are lengthy analyses of this video online – it’s well worth reading.

The video was controversial because of its religious iconography (the song also uses religious connotations and sexual innuendo). Some religious groups called it blasphemous and pushed for a boycott of Pepsi, which was sponsoring Madonna at the time. Pepsi caved in, of course. It didn’t change the fact that the video and the song were a success. Personally, I was stunned by Madonna’s look in this one, because we had never seen her au naturel before; she had grown her hair long and it was undyed. It’s one of those rare moments where Madonna allowed her natural beauty to take the stage, instead of tweaking it or completely remodeling it. 8.25/8.25

15. Express Yourself (Original Shep Pettibone Remix Video version): I know that this is just a dance track, but I love its message of female empowerment, basically telling women not to settle for second best in their relationships. It’s backed by some terrific horns, but what really drives it is Madonna’s vocals, which are probably her most powerful thus far; there’s conviction there. Between that and the message, the track rises significantly above its pop backing.

The video, which is inspired by ‘Metropolis’ (including its closing quote), was the most expensive one ever made at the time. David Fincher (yes, that David Fincher!) brings a massive amount of style to it; it’s one of (the?) the most visually stunning of Madonna’s career at this juncture: there are large cityscapes, an underground factory, buff, sweaty men working and fighting, a black cat wandering about, and Madonna, of course.

Madonna is blonde again, and she’s wearing all sorts of outfits, including lingerie, but most notably a business suit – in a first moment of gender bending. There was some question with respect to her lying naked on a bed, chained at the neck and crawling on the floor like a cat. Some people questioned how these images supported the song’s message, as they seem contradictory. Again, this didn’t prevent it from being a hit. 8.5/8.5

16. Cherish: This is a pretty simple pop/dance song. It’s thin, musically, but the chorus is insanely catchy, very poppy, in a “True Blue” vein – but better, because it conveys the elation of being in love. Similarly, the b+w video is simple, and has Madonna frolicking on a beach, all wet. There are shots of mermen swimming and kids playing on the beach. There’s beautiful camera work with quick edits and some slomo. Madonna is actually convincingly playful, looking into the camera with desire. She wouldn’t have been able to pull even that off just a few years prior. Maybe the acting experience helped, after all. 8.25/7.75

17. Vogue: Taken from ‘I’m Breathless’, the companion piece to 1990’s ‘Dick Tracy’ film, the song may not seem like much, as it’s just a dance-pop confection, but somehow it really gets under your skin. It was a massive hit for Madonna at the time. The video is also inexplicably efficient: it’s just a bunch of people posing and then vogue-ing, but David Fincher makes it look so good that it totally works. It’s all in the editing and the style. But it’s perfect, and Madonna really hit her stride at this point. She became an icon with this one, something she’d been building towards for years. 8.5/8.5

18. Justify My Love: One of two new singles tossed onto her “best of” compilation ‘The Immaculate Collection’, this is a confounding song because it’s really just an atmospheric song of longing – it’s certainly not what you’d expect from the songwriting combo of Madonna, Lenny Kravitz and Ingrid Chavez. Somehow, this was a hit and it played everywhere. It might have something to do the controversial nature of the video, which had everyone talking.

The video has Madonna wandering down a five-star hotel hallway, seemingly drowsy or drunk (I think it’s suggested that she’s drunk with lust). She drops her suitcase, and caresses herself passionately as she falls to the floor. There are shots of other men and women in the hotel, in various stages of undress. A man comes to her. She goes to a room with him, and they start to undress on a bed. Then comes the reveal: it turns out she’s making out with another woman instead – but in front of him.

It was good trick, and was likely shocking at the time. Then came the couples in drag, some in b+d gear, a topless woman (censored, naturally), and lots of androgyny. At the end, she runs off down the hallway, leaving the man languidly reaching out to her from the couch he’s on. It ends with the following quote: “Poor is the man whose pleasures depend on the permission of another”. She had just pushed everyone’s buttons, and everyone responded. Personally, I think it’s only alright. 7.0/7.5

19. Erotica*: This is the first single and opening track to the album of the same name. It starts with popping sounds from an LP. It really isn’t all that special. In many ways it felt like “Justify My Love” part 2. It still does. And you know how sequels are? Yeah, exactly. It’s not at all terrific: slow, bassy, with moans and much repetition. She sings about pain and pleasure. Whoopteedoo. It was a weird choice as an opening salvo, and it didn’t play that well.

The video begins with her beckoning us with her finger, which has a long pointy “fingernail” on it. She has a riding crop and is wearing some pseudo-fetish get-up with her hair pulled back and a mask covering her eyes. It’s just her on a simple little set with a glittering backdrop. Intercut is footage from the making of her ‘Sex’ book – which, as the title suggest, is all about sex, so the footage is pretty sensationalistic. It’s pretty grainy, in b+w and sepia tones. And, aside from people dancing, the video is filled with taboo-breaking: polygamy, bisexuality, b+d, s+m, gender bending, younger partners, older partners, exhibitionism – brazen sexuality, really. 4.5/7.0

20. Deeper and Deeper*: A stand-out from the ‘Erotica’ album (mostly because it was such a mixed-bag affair), it has a very catchy melody and a deep bass line. Bizarrely, it refers back to “Vogue” by reusing some lyrics at the end. I always wondered if that was an act of desperation (i.e. let’s point back to my biggest hit so that people will connect the two and enjoy this one more). Hmmm….

The video is b+w and colour. It begins with a speech by Udo Kier about letting go of our demons and idols, and consists of Madonna driving around, going partying at a club and hanging around with friends in a derelict apartment/hotel room. There are glamour shots of her and also a small seance-type bit and a pillow towards the end. It’s filmed in a ’70s setting, with hippies and disco types. Madonna looks ill, a bit spaced out. Not having eyebrows doesn’t really do much for her. And that huge blonde Afro? Bizarre. I was disappointed with this video, given how much I liked the song. 7.75/4.5

21. Rain: This is a synthetic-sounding ballad, but I rather like the melody – and the “powering up” at the bridge (nice touch). The video is simple: it’s her, in short slick black hair, on a photo shoot with a Japanese crew, being made up, consulting with the director, ..etc. She’s singing to the camera. The video is very slick, glam, modern. Some of the sights on that photoshoot are stunning. 7.5/7.5

22. I’ll Remember*: Taken from the soundtrack to the 1994 film ‘With Honors’, this was a moderate hit for Madge. Unfortunately, it’s mired in a synthetic production that makes it sound far too cold; it would have been better with real instruments. The video is simple: she’s in a movie dubbing studio (there are tons of shots of equipment and hands operating it), singing to images from the picture; it’s obviously a tie-in. It didn’t work: no one went to see that movie. I certainly didn’t feel inspired to; the best thing about it (based on the bits of the film we see on screen) seems to be this song. 7.0/6.5

I found it utterly fascinating to watch this set of videos, in chronological order, because you can actually see a progression in Madonna’s performance and in the quality of her videos. She really blossomed during the ‘Like a Prayer’/’The Immaculate Collection’ era, so from 1988-1990. Suddenly she was not just confident, but über-talented to boost; she wasn’t just a pop confection.

The other period that shines during this decade is ‘Like a Virgin’, naturally. This was her break-through period, but she would have been relegated to a blip on the radar if not for ‘Like a Prayer’; she would have been known for a few good pop albums, but nothing remarkable or long-lasting. By the time she did “Vogue” she was a superstar and had changed the landscape – there was no mistaking it.

By 1993-94 it was a dark time for Madonna, as she desperately tried to find her way, to become relevant again. As per usual, she has a terrific album and then a lesser one; incessant ups and downs (must be hard to deal with these fluctuations in the public eye). She would hit her stride again with the upcoming release of ‘Ray of Light’, which was a monstrous hit – and arguably her finest album.

More on that later.

Unfortunately, not only is this career-spanning collection incomplete (a real shame, because some excellent material is missing), but it also holds no other goodies besides the videos themselves. There have been plenty of comments about the audio/video quality of the set, but I didn’t find it that bad in comparison with other video collections; it’s pretty par for the course.

But it could certainly be better.

Perhaps there will one day be a more complete collection on Blu-ray – and then the A/V quality will finally put all concerns to rest. We’ll see. But, for now, there’s still another decade to get through. I will tackle the second disc in the ‘Celebration: The Video Collection’ soon enough. It’ll give you enough time to go revisit all of these videos – it’s well worth it.

Date of viewing: May 4-11, 2014

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