'Strike a Pose': Berlin Review

Strike a Pose still 2 - H 2016
Courtesy of Lisa Guarnieri
Not terribly substantial but surprisingly tender and touching.

Checking in on Madonna's Blond Ambition dancers 25 years later, this Dutch documentary looks at what happens once the performance high is over and the celebrity bubble pops.

Remember when Madonna used to be playful and fierce, and her iconoclastic performance stunts were about pop provocation and spectacular chutzpah, not just frantic bids to stay relevant? The apotheosis of those golden years was the 1990 Blond Ambition Tour, which scandalized the conservative world with its juxtaposition of sex and religion, not to mention birthed the fashion flourish of the Gaultier cone bra. The tour was chronicled in Alek Keshishian's juicy documentary Madonna: Truth or Dare, which featured the boss exchanging pillow talk with her beauteous multihued harem of seven young male dancers.

So what's left to consider in another doc that revisits those erstwhile voguing peacocks a quarter-century down the line? It turns out quite a bit in the slender but sweet Strike a Pose, co-directed by Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan. While it becomes slightly padded and repetitious in the eventual reunion of the six surviving dancers, the smartly assembled film makes points that resonate in a world where fame is increasingly ephemeral and life after the celebrity window closes can get awfully cold. It's a 21st century take on A Chorus Line that examines what comes after rather than before the euphoria of being chosen.

The modest but absorbing film should find a receptive audience keen on gay and pop-cultural programming at festivals as well as on streaming platforms and television. It also taps into recent renewed interest in voguing, as seen in the Sundance premiere Kiki, which also screened in Berlin's Panorama Documentary section.

At heart, Strike a Pose is a story of orphaned children, who were barely into their 20s when they traveled the world, giving fabulous face and killer attitude with a stratospherically famous surrogate mother who banished their insecurities and made them feel like royalty. The doc's principal weakness — and it's no doubt an unavoidable one — is the absence of Madonna to share her memories of that temporary family. And while the guys are disarmingly frank about their personal highs and lows, the suspicion arises that they're somewhat zipped-up about their possibly litigious former madre.

What rescues the film from becoming just another "where are they now?" reality show is the charm, personality and emotional honesty of the dancers — now in their 40s and mostly still looking pretty fine, even those with thickened waistlines, slackened features and less hair.

The core members of the group were Luis Camacho and Jose Gutierez, plucked from the black and Hispanic New York drag-ball scene (House of Xtravaganza was their alma mater) by Madonna to dance in her music video for "Vogue," directed by David Fincher, and following that, to perform in the yearlong global tour. The charges of cultural appropriation made against Madonna at the time are not addressed, but then, she's always been a magpie so those gripes now seem irrelevant.

While a willingness to share the spotlight is not the first trait you'd associate with Madonna, she was looking for dancers with presence, and with a story to tell. "Give me more of you," was her key piece of direction, one of them recalls. That came naturally. "We carried our flamboyance as a warning," explains Camacho. "Yes, we have earrings on, we have eyeliner on, but don't mistake any of this for weakness."

Intercutting present-day interviews with footage from HBO specials on the tour, as well as from Truth or Dare, Gould and Zwaan provide an exciting recap of a show that set the standard of extravagant arena spectacle for the next generation of pop artists.

The dancers — all but one of whom were classically trained — describe the thrill of getting the call for such a high-profile gig. Salim Gauwloos (nicknamed "Slam") was a recent immigrant from Belgium looking to get a foothold in the U.S.; Kevin Stea was coming off a rough summer and strapped for cash: "I had no money to eat. I had a terrible highlighted mullet." The untrained Oliver Crumes III was born in the New Orleans projects and came from a hip-hop background. Being the one straight dancer in the bunch coaxed him to ditch the homophobia and embrace everyone. All of them share memories of a bonding, familial experience that helped them to grow up and figure out who they were.

The motto of the tour came from the Madonna hit "Express Yourself," and there are lovely moments in which dancers read letters and emails from fans acknowledging the importance of seeing beautiful, self-assured gay men onscreen in Truth or Dare, at a time when gay culture had not yet been mainstreamed and visibility of out-and-proud role models was still patchy. This theme serves as a nice reminder of the queer-inclusiveness Madonna represented for a lot of us back then, explaining why part of her gay fan base has remained loyal even after the albums stopped being innovative and the pop-cultural sampling grew more vampiric.

The flip side, however, was the ongoing stigma of AIDS/HIV at the end of the 1980s, the crisis decade. During the tour, three of the dancers were secretly aware of having contracted the virus, one of them going public about it only now. And one, Gabriel Trupin, Madonna's "unofficial favorite child," subsequently died of AIDS in 1995 at age 26. Despite the "Express Yourself" mandate, the message of freedom to love whom you choose, and the projection of strength that touched and inspired people, half the dance crew was living in silence and fear.

The parts of the film featuring Gabriel's mother, Sue Trupin, are quite emotional, whether it's footage of her placing a rose on his name at the AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco, or her candid discussion of the standoff with Madonna over his personal exposure in Truth or Dare. She claims he fought to keep an onscreen kiss with Slam and a revealing conversation with Madonna out of the film, but the singer allegedly forced his hand, telling him he was just letting himself be ruled by shame.

The claim that the 21-year-old wasn't emotionally ready to be a public advocate but had been involuntarily outed by the movie became the subject of a lawsuit, which Stea and Crumes also joined over income issues. But Gould and Zwaan more or less drop that development, possibly due to the undisclosed settlement terms.

All of the dancers now say they carry no ill will toward Madonna and that she owes them nothing, but there's a melancholy note to those assertions as they express the wish that they could have known her as grown-ups. It's left mostly unstated that her ties to them gradually dissolved after the tour, with Camacho revealing that she encouraged him to get help for his growing heroin addiction, and that drug use among the group was one of the reasons Madonna started to back away.

While the documentary might risk being interpreted as a sad bid to milk a little more attention from a long-ago five minutes of fame, the dancers' openness about their sinking experiences and hardships after the tour ended quashes any such charge.

They speak freely about the addictive high of partying, being welcomed into all the best clubs, and the treacherous spiral of drug and alcohol abuse. Gutierez and Carlton Wilborn are especially eloquent about the stinging realization that for all their power onstage, their confidence was pulled out like a rug from under them when it ended, exposing it as an illusion. And Gauwloos talks about how having been "a Madonna dancer" could open doors professionally, but also close them with dismissive assumptions. Heightening the poignancy of those and other reflections, the doc makes effective use of Bart Westerlaken's guitar and piano music, and of the stirring Cinematic Orchestra song, "To Build a Home."

Despite the pensive nature of a significant part of the film, the themes of resilience and spirit come through strongly in footage of the men striking a pose again now, assuming their semaphoric voguing stances in dance studios, in the great outdoors, on the street or alone in their living rooms. And footage of them teaching dance — including a gorgeous overhead shot of Gauwloos out front of a large studio class, which recalls the opening of Bob Fosse's All That Jazz — lends a gentle suggestion of paying the experience forward. Their bruises aside, these Madonna survivors can still dance and sing, get up and do their thing.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama Documentary)
Production companies: CTM Docs, The Other Room, in association with Serendipity Films, SWR
Cast: Luis Camacho, Oliver Crumes III, Salim Gauwloos, Jose Gutierez, Kevin Stea, Carlton Wilborn

Director-writers: Ester Gould, Reijer Zwaan
Producers: Thomas den Drijver, Rosan Boersma, Sander Verdonk, Denis Wigman, Ester Gould, Reijer Zwaan
Executive producer: Andre de Raaf
Director of photography: Reinout Steenhuizen
Music: Bart Westerlaken
Editor: Dorith Vinken
Sales: XYZ Films

No rating, 85 minutes