What makes a good film? One can consider photography, acting, editing and so forth. My favorite one at this year’s Berlinale is judged solely on good vibes. And I wasn’t alone. The cinema was packed and when the six “stars” of the film walked in and took seats right before lights out, the audience stood and clapped and screamed. I was there cold turkey – no clue – but was soon to learn.
I am talking about the documentary Strike a Pose. Dutch directors Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan interviewed the six surviving background dancers of singer Madonna during her 1990 Blond Ambition World Tour: Luis Camacho, Oliver Crumes Jr., Salim Gauwloos, Jose Guitierez, Kevin Alexander Stea, and Carlton Wilborn. It was no small feat to locate them now 25 years later – mostly in the United States. Sadly, Gabriel Trupin had died of AIDS in 1995. As young men they were good-looking, talented dancers who saw this as a huge career chance. They bonded while on tour. Madonna saw them as just kids whom she should mother and spend time with, even outside the on-stage performances, even lounging “in bed” with them, according to the title of the documentary In Bed with Madonna: Truth or Dare, which Madonna made concurrent to the year-long tour. Here she introduced the “gay kiss.” “Strike a Pose” was a dance move, actually a “freeze” move which children do when they play “statues.” It was part of their performances.
The directors sought out each dancer and spoke to them one by one. They could look back and reminisce for this film. They discuss their hidden homosexuality (only Oliver Crumes Jr was not gay) which Madonna blatantly revealed to her audience during the tour. For this three of the dancers took her to court, claiming damages to their private lives. We meet the boys’ mothers, their boyfriends and, in the case of Oliver Crumes Jr., a wife and daughter. All of them have faced low moments in life, sometimes related to drugs, also AIDS, which two of them have managed to survive so far. They have become mature, helpful members of society and all of them are still connected to dance in some way, e.g., performing or teaching. AIDS was considered a private matter “a silent battle that you incurred by yourself, an invisible battle that you kept for yourselves.” It is quite obvious that they made Madonna look really good on stage, partly because of their talent and partly because of their close understanding with each other.
Thus, it was unusual that they should have lost touch after the tour. After individual interviews, the directors arranged a meeting together, an emotional day of hugging and weeping and comparing memories. They had nice words about their deceased colleague Gabriel. The climax of the experience, of course, was travelling to Berlin to see the film with my audience, which rose to a 10-minute standing ovation after the film. They went on stage for Q & A and later spoke with many of us individually afterwards. People in the audience began to tell their own experiences, e.g., one having “seen In Bed with Madonna at age 11, which made such an impact on my life.” Oliver Crumes Jr. was the silly guy of the bunch, with a paunch, often acting gay-er than the actual gay guys, crying repeatedly over the reunion. He said he was not “a Madonna Bitch.” The question, of course, was “What did Madonna think this of this documentary” (which doesn’t always show her in good light)? Director Ester Gould said that so far Madonna had not seen the film. She also did not contribute to its making in any way. They plan to send her a copy; perhaps there will be a reaction, perhaps not. Many thanks to Dutch film sponsorship which DID make the film possible – something that someone in the U.S. should have taken on years ago.
This wasn’t the only good musical film. Another documentary was The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. I’m sure I don’t need to mention, that very young-looking (born 1955) Yo-Yo Ma is a world-famous Asia-American cellist who has performed with the major orchestras of the world. In 2000 he founded a group called the Silk Road project to which he invites about 60 musicians from about 20 countries, East and West, to share music from their different parts of the world. They assemble, rehearse, and then hit the road, so far resulting in 300 concerts at all kinds of venues: open air, in villages, on a pier, etc. They travelled to 34 countries and played for over two million people. They have made six albums. Director Morgan Neville accompanied them on their latest tour, featuring several most talented musicians on unusual instruments, including bag pipes. He talked to them between performances, on the road, telling jokes and sharing customs.
As the same time we also learn much about the life of Yo-Yo Ma, who was discovered by Leonard Bernstein to be an exceptional cellist at the tender age of seven. Ma says, “When you grow up with something you don’t make a choice; you just fall into it.”
It begins with Ma showing a youngster a cello and saying, “This is my cello. Have you ever seen one before?” We meet his grown son, Nicholas, who supports his father’s endeavors. The group travels to New York, China, Iran, back to Boston, then Turkey, Spain, Jorden, etc. Besides valuable information, it extends an atmosphere of fun, definitely not work, although it’s obvious that all of these musicians are quite dedicated.
Weekends by Korean director Lee Dong-ha is a documentary about a gay male choir in Korea. It is run like a non-profit club and anyone can be a member. Financially, it is dependent on private donations and ticket sales. There is no official funding, for example from any government office. Clothing is also donated for them to present a unified well-dressed look. Most members are around the ages of 30 to 40 and most enjoy singing. The director also singles out several members of the group and delves into their lives for a personal touch. The singers believe that “music is universal,” although some join simply because a boyfriend is a member. One says, “I’m not sure if we can even call it singing.” They started with mainstream songs and then soon began composing original music. They discuss whether they can be Christian and also gay; they mention the development of homophonic situations in Korea and in 2015 participated in a Joint Action Against Homophobic demonstration. The film climaxes with their wonderful 10th anniversary concert.