There is an absurdly vast selection of music movies and documentaries available on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and on and on and on. But it’s hard to tell which ones are actually worth your 100 minutes. Watch the Tunes will help you pick what music doc is worth your time every weekend. This week’s edition covers Strike A Pose, which is currently streaming on Netflix.
I didn’t plan it out this way, but here we are celebrating the one year anniversary of Truth Or Dare’s entry in our Watch the Tunes canon with a return of sorts to Madonna’s landmark 1990 Blond Ambition Tour. On the docket this week is Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan’s fantastic recent documentary Strike A Pose, which catches up with the Material Girl’s crew of backup dancers who I pointed out in last year’s write up as one of the most interesting aspects of the film, a tall order for a documentary covering the most provocative period in Madonna’s career.
There are two glaring absences in Strike A Pose. First and foremost, obviously, is Madonna, with whom the dancers relationship could charitably be described as “fraught”. After the tour wrapped up and Truth Or Dare premiered she got embroiled in some messy legal back and forth with most of the dancers, and as such has distanced herself from them ever since. Given how motherly she came off in Truth Or Dare, it’s a shock that she turned so quickly on the group in various ways. All of the dancers were plucked from relative obscurity, with the fame of the tour giving them their first taste of success and financial stability, so they were subjected to a complex rollercoaster thanks to Madonna’s surprising one hundred and eighty degree turn away from them.
The other absence, less notable in name but by far the one that drives Strike A Pose, is Gabriel Trupin, the dancer who died from complications related to HIV/AIDS in 1995. Like the other men in the group, Gabriel was wrapped up in court proceedings with Madonna, but his were more personal than the others since he was primarily upset that Madonna had outed him in the film. Gabriel had pleaded with her to cut that aspect of the movie, according to court documents introduced in interviews with the filmmakers by his mother, but to no avail. Two other dancers, Carlton Wilborn and Salim (“Slam”) Gauwloos, also knew that they had tested positive with the disease, but during the time they were on tour with Madonna they kept it secret from everyone, with Gauwloos only revealing his diagnosis to the others during the filming of Strike A Pose.
More than just backup dancers and choreographers, these seven men became part of the overall narrative of the tour and, even more explicitly, Truth Or Dare itself. Madonna had used the tour and the film as a means of commenting on the AIDs crisis in America, referencing the painfully recent death of her friend Keith Haring from the disease, as well as advocating condom usage for every gender of sexual orientation. Truth Or Dare makes a point of following a group of the dancers to a New York pride parade pointedly focusing in on the moment of silence dedicated to those who had died from HIV/AIDS. For all that she took from them and then so easily cast them out you’d think that the men would hate her, but as Strike A Pose explores, their feelings are much more complicated than that. “She doesn’t owe us anything” says Luis Camacho late in the film, which is true, but barely seems to scratch the surface of the ways that she hurt these men.
Not necessarily a success story, Strike A Pose still does an excellent job at showing the paths the dancers took in the years after working with Madonna. The closest any of them came to fame were Jose Camacho and Luis Guiterrez who somehow got Madonna to contribute backup vocals (uncredited) to their house track “Queen's English.” Others had a tougher time, with drugs and alcohol taking their toll on Oliver Crumes in particular before he was able to get a grip on his life. That said, to a man, each one seems to have settled into some form of professional and emotional stability, relegating their time with Madonna to “water under the bridge” territory that is only being brought back up for the sake of the filmmakers.
Directors Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan have made a film that is surprisingly light on damning gossip about Madonna, content to let their subjects’ multi-faceted feelings towards their former matriarch speak to her faults. Strike A Pose is an excellent case study on the characters who occupy the fringe of the music industry, those who serve at the pleasure of the Big Name Artists, and who are often times cast aside with very little courtesy and for that, along with the unique perspective it offers on HIV/AIDS in the 90s, it absolutely deserves a spot in your Netlfix watchlist.
Chris Lay is a freelance writer, archivist, and record store clerk living in Madison, WI. The very first CD he bought for himself was the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack when he was twelve and things only got better from there.