“Madonna: The Performance Review”: Looking back at the 35-plus year career of the world’s top-selling female artist

By on November 10, 2016

The 2007 documentary Madonna: The Performance Review focuses on many aspects of Madonna Ciccone’s incredible career, spanning more than thirty-five years at this point, concentrating not only on her work as a vibrant singer and performer, but also her life as a dancer, and an actress, with a reassessment of her film career.

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Even though we no longer have this title streaming on Night Flight Plus., you can find this hour-long program elsewhere online, we’re sure.

It includes obscure footage, seldom seen photos and lots of the kinds of historical footnotes and ephemera typically associated with the well-received Under Review DVD series — features snippets from several of her astonishing and most popular music videos, including “Like a Prayer,” “Like a Virgin,” “Lucky Star,” “In the Groove,” and more.

There’s also a lot of commentary and insightful interviews with: Mark Kamins (producer of her first album); her high school classmate John Plaff; New York Daily News writer Jim Farber; music historian, writer and broadcaster Paul Gambaccinni; singer and performer Kellee Bryan (formally of R&B pop band Eternal); Devon Powers from Pop Matters magazine; studio owner Bob Blank; her biographer, Lucy O’Brien; deejay and journalist Kris Needs; pop culture scribe Phillip Rhodes, and many more.

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This program tells us how Madonna’s desire to become a provocative performer began long before she was having pop hits such as “Lucky Star,” a musical career that has weathered many changes, including a flirtation with electronica in later albums such as American Life.

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Born Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone on August 16, 1958, in Bay City, Michigan, she was the eldest daughter and the third of six children. Her father, Sylvio (also known as Tony), worked at Chrysler/General Dynamics as a design engineer, and Madonna was close to him, particularly after her mother died of breast cancer when she was just five years old.

Sylvio moved his family to Pontiac, Michigan, and ended up marrying a woman he’d hired to come take care of his family, when caused some difficulty for Madonna, who wasn’t comfortable with the change in the family dynamic.

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Madonna attended Catholic school and took piano lessons (apparently she didn’t enjoy them), and was a teenager when she discovered she loved dancing and acting, becoming involved in high school theater productions, taking dance lessons and she was also a cheerleader, but she eventually stopped cheer leading in order to focus on her dancing.

Under the direction and leadership of her private ballet instructor, Christopher Flynn, she was not only introduced to the world of dance, but also to the disco nightlife of Detroit.

She would end up graduating from high school a semester early, and was awarded a dance scholarship from the University of Michigan, but would leave college after just two years, in 1978, in order to move to New York City to pursue her dance career full-time.

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Madonna arrived in the Big Apple with just $37 in her wallet but she was determined to stay and work hard and achieve her dreams. Everyone who met her in her early days in NYC remembers how determined she was to “make it.”

She moved into an apartment in the East Village in a sector of the city that wasn’t exactly safe for a young woman, but it just made her tougher.

She would end up getting hired by the Pearl Lang Dance Company and danced briefly with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, but realized that it would take her years of intense study before she would be able to join a professional dance troupe.

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Madonna would end up traveling to Paris as a singer and dancer with French disco artist Patrick Hernandez, and soon she was back in NYC, switching from dance to music, joining her boyfriend’s band, playing the drums and singing back-up.

She ended up hanging out in Manhattan nightclubs and singing whenever she could, and ended up recording songs which lead to her signing a recording contract with Sire Records in October of 1982.

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Her first single, “Everybody,” was released that same year, becoming an instant dance hit, which of course led to recording her debut album, Madonna, which was released in July 1983.

Another single from the album, “Holiday,” shot up to #16 on the U.S. charts, and became a club hit, along with several other tracks from the album, including “Lucky Star,” and “Borderline.”

She had her first number one hit in 1984 with “Like a Virgin.”

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The album Like A Virgin would end up providing her with a second huge hit, “Material Girl,” and her brief performance in the film Vision Quest would result in yet another hit, when her song “Crazy for You,” appeared on the film’s soundtrack, a top five hit.

By 1985, she was already quite the phenomenon, and thousands of teenage girls around the country — the world, actually — began dressing like her, tying lace bows in their hair, wearing lots of bracelets and underwear as outwear, to the point where they were eventually nicknamed “Madonna wannabees.”

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Madonna’s film career continued with Desperately Seeking Susan, and she had yet another hit with “In the Groove.” She would also marry actor Sean Penn, and one of her next singles, “Live to Tell,” would appear on the soundtrack to Penn’s film At Close Range.

The track would end up being featured on Madonna’s third album, True Blue, which included two other hit songs, “Papa Don’t Preach” and the title track.

A year later, she’d be appearing in Who’s That Girl, released in 1987, but the film was largely dismissed, even though the film’s soundtrack and Madonna’s subsequent concert tour were both successful.

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By the end of the 1980s, Madonna was a certified pop legend, and she would go on to sell over 300 million albums while becoming the world’s top-selling female artist of all time.

She would also occasionally court controversy, like the time her video for “Like A Prayer,” the title track from her 1989 album of the same name, showed her confessing to a priest and then engaging in suggestive behavior with the man, which caused the Catholic church to voice their disapproval, which then led to more problems for the Pop Music queen.

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Madonna: The Performance Review discusses all of the above, and more, including some of her other movie appearances: Shanghai Surprise (1986), Dick Tracy (1989), A League of Their Own (1992), and Body of Evidence (1993), among others.

Look for Madonna: The Performance Review online, and be sure to check out our selection of music documentaries, now streaming on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.