Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 18, 2017)
Exactly 30 years after she first hit the road with 1985’s “Virgin Tour”, 2015 brought Madonna’s tenth concert trek. An outing to support that year’s Rebel Heart, the tour spread into 2016 and as I write in September 2017, it remains her most recent tour.
Two years after the show’s debut, we get a home video representation of the concert via this Rebel Heart Tour Blu-ray. Like most Madonna tours, this one highlighted her most recent album, so nine of its 22 songs come from Rebel Heart: “Iconic”, “Bitch I’m Madonna”, “Holy Water”, “Devil Pray”, “Body Shop”, “HeartBreakCity”, “Living For Love”, “Unapologetic Bitch” and the title track.
Madonna skips 2012’s MDNA but brings us “Candy Shop” from 2008’s Hard Candy. We locate no tunes from 2006’s Confessions on the Dance Floor or 2003’s American Life but we do find the title song from 2000’s Music.
From there, Madonna passes on anything from 1998’s Ray of Light or 1994’s Bedtime Stories, but we receive “Deeper and Deeper” from 1992’s Erotica. 1990’s I’m Breathless gives us “Vogue”, but we pass by 1989’s Like a Prayer.
1986’s True Blue presents the title song and “La Isla Bonita”, while 1985 boasts the single “Into the Groove”. 1984’s Like a Virgin features the title song, “Material Girl” and “Dress You Up”.
Finally, 1983’s self-titled debut tosses out “Holiday” and “Burning Up”. Madonna also covers Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose”.
As I suspect I mention every time I review Madonna concert programs, I’ve seen her live on all 10 of her tours. To date, I’ve gone to 60-plus Madonna shows, most during her six 21st century tours – with the greater financial wherewithal that comes with age, I’ve been able to travel to see way more than I could when I was a student during her first four tours.
Though I hesitate to rank Madonna’s tours, I do suspect that I’d have to place “Rebel Heart” at the bottom of those 10. To be sure, that doesn’t make this a bad show at all, as Madonna remains a strong live performer.
After six tours from 2001-2015, though, a certain sense of monotony has set in, mainly because Madonna sticks with the same framework each time. Ever since 2001’s Drowned World Tour, each show has focused around a four-act structure, and that continued to be the case with “Rebel Heart”.
I guess Madonna figures if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and for fans who don’t hit every tour, the lack of conceptual variation probably fails to create an impact. However, I think this lack of novelty sinks into the show in various ways, mainly because it lends an air of complacency to the concert.
Not that Madonna has anything to prove after almost 35 years as a star, of course, and I don’t want to imply that she coasts. In her late 50s during the 2015-16 tour, Madonna didn’t demonstrate the physical presence she had decades ago, but displayed an energy and fluidity far better than one might expect from a person her age.
Still, Madonna seems less engaged than usual – or perhaps I’m projecting my own feelings, as “Rebel Heart” tends to leave me slightly cold. Again, I can’t deny some of this probably stems from my background, as the show comes with a “been there, done that” feel for those of us with ample Madonna live experience.
The Rebel Heart album also doesn’t lend itself to the live setting – at least not the massive visual extravaganza Madonna stages. A more introspective album than usual for Madonna, Heart fails to click with the kind of show-stopping production the concert produces.
Because of this, the concert tends to lack great energy at times. The “first act” opens on a semi-flat note, as “Iconic” simply lacks the punch one wants at a show’s beginning, and with the exception of “Burning Up”, the rest of Act One doesn’t present a lot of pop.
On prior tours, Act Two tended to launch with big, lively numbers. For instance, the “MDNA” tour jumped to life in Act Two with “Express Yourself”, while the 2008 Sticky and Sweet Tour kicked off Act Two with “Into the Groove” – that’s two big, upbeat hits.
So what opens Act Two of “Rebel Heart”? “Body Shop” – not only a new song unfamiliar to many fans, but also one without any real energy. It’s not a bad tune, but it’s wholly mediocre and a flat way to bring in audiences after the short break.
At least Madonna picks much better songs to begin Acts Three and Four. While Three opens with another new song, “Living for Love” boasta a much better kick than “Body Shop”, and it’s probably the Rebel Heart song that plays better in concert than any of the others.
And then – kerplunk! Madonna kills the momentum with a low-key cover of “La Vie En Rose” and then proceeds to “Unapologetic Bitch”, one of the weirdest choices to conclude a performance I’ve heard in the 900-plus concerts I’ve attended.
“Unapologetic” doesn’t flop as a closer because it’s new/obscure. It doesn’t flop as a closer because it’s a loping reggae-inflected track instead of Madonna’s more typical high-energy dance pop. It doesn’t flop because Madonna devotes much of the track’s running time to a silly comedic bit in which she pulls an audience member on stage to christen her the “unapologetic bitch” of the evening.
“Unapologetic” flops because of all those reasons, as they create a perfect trifecta. This is the kind of tune that should’ve popped up midway during Act Two, where its sluggish beat wouldn’t impact the concert’s pace and momentum.
At least the performance bounces back on a higher note with the encore song of “Holiday”, but I still think “Unapologetic” damages the show. I recall the general confusion in the audience when Madonna left the stage after the song’s end – it’s just such a flat way to end the main concert that it leaves a bad taste.
As a caveat here, I admit one should probably take my comments with some grains of salt, as they likely fall into the rantings of a super-fan. Like I mentioned earlier, most audience members haven’t seen Madonna once, much less 60-plus times over 30 years. That means my desires/expectations will differ from those of a more casual viewer.
That said, I normally would complain that an artist played too many “tried and true” songs, as people like me want the new and/or off-beat songs. I usually really like when Madonna does ample samples of her most recent album – these tunes almost always work better live, and they offer something fresh.
The Rebel Heart numbers just don’t get the standard boost, though. A few perk up on stage – like the aforementioned “Living for Love” – but more come across like flat tracks such as “Unapologetic” and “Body Shop”.
Unfortunately, Madonna doesn’t include one of the Heart songs that audiences ate up on the occasions she played it: “Ghosttown”. I attended the Brooklyn show at which it made its live debut, and the crowd reacted so positively that Madonna actually seemed a little overwhelmed and emotional. It would’ve been a great addition to the show on a consistent basis.
Even with all this fanboy whining, I do acknowledge that “Rebel Heart” delivers a good concert. Heck, if I’d never seen Madonna live, I’d probably view it as a great show. Alas, my experience leaves it as an enjoyable performance but not one that ranks with Madonna’s better tours.
If you didn’t go to a live concert during the tour and you hoped this Blu-ray would offer a good representation of that show, you’ll find disappointment. As directed by Danny Tull and Nathan Rissman, Rebel Heart winds up as a mess.
Tull and Rissman refuse to allow the concert to stand on its own. Instead, they use rapid cuts and visual gimmicks to turn the program into two hours of music videos.
This really doesn’t work, though I empathize with the directors to some degree. A Madonna concert features a slew of disparate visual elements, so it becomes difficult to feature all of them in one coherent video.
It can be done better than this, though, as Rebel Heart degenerates into an incoherent stew. When I watch a concert program, I’d like a fairly straightforward presentation that gives me some sense of what it was like to attend the show.
Tull and Rissman fail to do this, as their insistence on flashy visuals robs Rebel Heart of any sense of verisimilitude. Instead, it just winds up as a hyperactive collection of short shots with little coherence.
Madonna fans deserve better. Even though I don’t love the concert on display, I like it and want a product that lets me revisit what I saw live in 2015.
Rebel Heart suffers from too many directorial flaws to deliver a positive representation of the concert. Because I’m a Madonna diehard, I’ll still watch it occasionally, but it leaves me disappointed.