I’ve been itching to read this since I first heard about its impending publication in a number of 2019 previews. This is the fifth novel for British author Govinden, which was a surprise as I read the novel assuming it was an American work.
Set around the time of the New York vogue balls which had their heyday in the late 80’s/early 90’s this book probably has the documentary film “Paris Is Burning” (1990) as its strongest influence. (If you haven’t seen this catch it on Netflix- it is outstanding). Since I read of this book in January we have had the UK transmission of Ryan Murphy’s “Pose” (BBC2) which was also very strong and touches very similar ground.
The vogue ball scene, although underground, has had a strong cultural link in the decades which have followed it influencing fashion and music particularly Madonna and “Rupaul’s Drag Race”. Central to the set up were the “houses” who competed in various dance/drag categories to win trophies and who were dominated by the “mothers” who provided support and often food and accommodation for those lost in NYC in return for their participation in the contests in order to raise their particular house to the desired “legendary” status.
The balls may have shifted into the background in this novel but those who participate in them are paramount. A group of “mothers” stage a silent protest on the steps of City Hall because of official incompetence at investigating disappearances of their “children”. Teddy, one of the few characters to be named in the book, is both one of the children made good by education and a City Hall employee placed into the middle of this situation. And plot-wise that is largely it.
It’s written with great energy and is direct and forthright throughout becoming at times almost sermon-like, an intense flow of the perceptions of Teddy and the collective group of mothers. As well as giving this novel its impetus it does also at times cause it to drag as there is not enough variation in the narrative style. The vogue-caller (think Pray Tell in “Pose”) has his section but it is merely a list of categories and pages of little more than the word “work” which would normally have me hurling the book across the room but which here due to the rhythmic nature of the piece (and because I find the subject matter fascinating) Govinden gets away with it. I think I would have welcomed another plot thread perhaps based upon the balls themselves in a more naturalistic style which would add greater potency to the elevated language of the narrative.
This book is not going to be to everyone’s taste but often if I have high expectations of a book before reading it they can be completely dashed but I found myself more or less involved throughout. It’s a story about outsiders attempting to conform but seeking their own refuge through their own special kind of family grouping and of throwing shade and shapes on the dancefloor.
This Brutal House is published by Dialogue in hardback on 6th June. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.
By 1990 Madonna had been at the top of her game commercially for six years. In this time she had notched up 7 US and 6 UK number 1 singles and had recorded four studio albums the last three of which had topped both the UK and US album charts. She was achieving a level of fame which had not been experienced by solo female singers before. For me, however, she was still very much a singles artist. There had been a great run of these but album wise I thought her output was a little patchy as if she had not really found that true direction. I’d owned a copy of her Nile Rodgers produced “Like A Virgin” where the great moments had been released as singles although the album sold in bucket-loads –some 25 million which puts it up there in the best selling albums of all time.
The albums to this point had all been worthy with some great tracks but lacked a certain cohesiveness which could push her, as far as I was concerned to another level. It was from this point onward that I really got on board. The central point that pulled everything together here was the movie Dick Tracy.
It was well known how much Madonna yearned to be a huge movie star. Hollywood era glamour was long gone by the time she came around but there was a belief that she could turn back time to become another Bette Davis, Jean Harlow, Marilyn Monroe. She’d triumphed co-starring in the small 1985 movie “Desperately Seeking Susan” but when the budgets went up and she was expected to carry a whole production we got “Shanghai Surprise” one of the biggest disasters of all time. Four years on “Dick Tracy” did a little to recover her tarnished movie reputation. This return for the 1930’s comic strip detective was masterminded by Warren Beatty, very much a power figure in Hollywood. Madonna’s marriage to Shanghai co-star Sean Penn had ended in divorce in 1989. Love blossomed on the Dick Tracy set between Madonna and Beatty, even though it did not last much longer after the release of the movie.
A loved-up Madonna, however, thrilled by her role of Breathless Mahoney was inspired by the whole feel of the movie and wanted to do more to ensure the film’s success. This album is the result. The subtitle states “Music from and inspired by the film Dick Tracy”. It’s a soundtrack album that’s not quite a soundtrack and also a Broadway musical that never was. Part a tribute to 30’s glamour, part “Bugsy Malone” and “Chicago”, part a relevant 1990’s club album (with a groundbreaking club track) this remains for me Madonna’s finest moment and the one that gave her a strong image which has been her stock-in-trade ever since. She may have reinvented herself umpteen times since but they are always strong images from the dominatrix of “Erotica” to Eva Peron of “Evita”, to indie-girl of “Ray Of Light” to disco bunny of “Confessions On A Dance Floor” . This combination of the movie image and musical image seems to be the most effective springboard for this. Apart from the “Material Girl” video Madonna as showgirl had never really featured as part of her creative vision until this but it became an essential part of her make-up from this point on.
Madonna as “Material Girl”
Commercially, the album has certainly outlived the film that inspired it but in terms of a Madonna album the worldwide sales figures of over 7 million were down considerably from the heady days of “Like A Virgin”, but these sales are impressive for a soundtrack album (and beat the previous soundtrack “Who’s That Girl” she had been involved with by at least a million). In the UK it gave her a chart-topper and a number 2 single in the US, one number 1 hit and one top ten hit. There are 12 tracks three of which actually featured in “Dick Tracy”. All three of these are written by Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim. It was produced mainly by Madonna with Patrick Leonard and features guest vocals from Warren Beatty, Mandy Patinkin (best known to us Brits as Gideon in the first few series of “Criminal Minds” and features tap dancers named amongst the music personnel.
Mandy Patinkin and Stephen Sondheim – collaborators on “I’m Breathless”
The whole thing kicks off with “He’s A Man” a slinky, mid-tempo number written and produced by Madonna and Patrick Leonard which is sung in praise of the Dick Tracy character and is a good album opener with it’s snatches of “calling Dick Tracy” over police radios. Madonna is very much in the Breathless Mahoney role with this. Things shift up a bit for the first class “Sooner Or Later” the first Sondheim song to actually feature in the film. The feel is just right, it’s as if we’re transported to “Guys And Dolls” watching a performance from “Ever Lovin’” Adelaide and there’s a good performance from Madonna.
Hit single next and “Hanky Panky” was best appreciated by us Brits who took the single to number 2. It’s one of those naughty but nice tracks which fit in with the British psyche and have been with us since the days of music hall and was the first hit single to feature spanking as it’s theme. Perhaps, predictably in the US it got a slightly cooler reception and it’s number 10 chart placing was (apart from the previous year’s “Oh Father” which made #20)was the first time she’d missed out on the Top 5 for six years. It’s song-along, cheerfully rude (“my bottom hurts just thinking about it”) and is a fun bit of fluff. Its 1940 jazz/swing references makes it a precursor of Christina Aguliera’s “Candyman”. It’s all done with fun. In her next projects “Erotica” and the “Sex” book Madonna would become considerably more in your face with sexual expression and scared quite a few people off! There’s Carmen Miranda cheekiness in “I’m Going Bananas” a track written by Michael Kernan and Andy Paley and the fun continues with the Madonna and Leonard penned “Cry Baby”.
“Something To Remember” was something of a turning point for me. Up until then I had never really cared for Madonna as a ballad singer but this was something of a revelation. It does move away from the ritzy camp of the last couple of tracks and works well within the concept of the album. This was the first of a number of really good Madonna tracks such as “Take A Bow”, “You’ll See” and the sublime “One More Chance”. Madonna obviously felt proud enough of this to use it as the title track for her collection of ballads CD in 1995. This sounded like a big hit single to me.
“Back In Business” starts off calmly but explodes into the razzmatazz we’ve heard on the album before. Less cheesy than some of the more fun tracks this rounds up with a great sax solo by Jeff Clayton. Two Sondheim songs follow and the first “More” is up there with his best and puts Madonna back into the Material Girl mode. Clever lyrics, as we might expect and a great production from Madonna and Bill Bottrell. It fits right into the tradition of “Material girl-ness” which has produced songs such as “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend”, “My Heart Belongs To Daddy” and “Just An Old Fashioned Girl”. There’s a snatch of tap dancing, the song builds well and it is one of the real joys of the album. Ballad “What Can You Lose” with Mandy Patnikin who plays piano player 88 Keys in the movie feels like a piano led Broadway number.
I’m a big fan of the two part “Now I’m Following You” which starts off as a touching little dance duet between Madonna and Warren Beatty and features more tap dancing until the record grinds to a halt for part two which transforms the song into a delightful piece of electro-swing which acts as a finale for the musical with reprises in snatches of other tracks. It works well heard in the context of what has gone before but I really like this second part and has a very cool feel. Talk about cool, that’s certainly a word which can apply to the final track and the song which gave Madonna her 8th US number 1 and 7th UK number 1. In fact, it was in 1990 the epitome of cool. Madonna used a dance attitude she had witnessed in New York black gay clubs and brought it into the mainstream. It had been seen in the 1990 documentary about New York dance culture “Paris Is Burning” and choreographer Jose Gutierez Xtravaganza was its leading light. “Vogue” was both incredibly relevant, daring and a throw back to the glamour of yesteryear with its name-checking rap section “Dietrich and Di Maggio……” You know you still know most of it!
A black and white video of the striking postured moves scooped three awards in the 1990 MTV Music Awards and is one of the best known videos of all time. It also clearly established that this is a dance that will only look good if performed by a professional. Half-hearted attempts on dance floors the world over were thankfully short-lived and always embarrassing. “Vogue” notched up worldwide sales of over 6 million and was a truly international hit topping the charts in amongst other territories, Canada, Australia, Italy and Spain. It was the best selling single of 1990 and ensured that Madonna would make the transition from 80’s superstar to 90’s megastar. It is a superb way to round off what is as far as I am concerned the most essential Madonna album and the one that I still play more than any of the others.
With career certainly back at the top it was time for Madonna to take stock a little and allow the rest of us who may have joined the party late to catch up. Her second release of 1990 would be a greatest hits collection with a couple of new tracks. Released in November four months after “I’m Breathless” hit the shops “The Immaculate Collection” would rewrite the Madonna record-book, but that’s another story…………………….
I’m Breathless – Music From And Inspired By The Film Dick Tracy is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £4.49, and used from £0.01. It can be downloaded for £8.69. In the US it is currently $13.74 new and used from $0.01. and as a download for $9.49. In the UK it is also available to stream on Spotify.