Concert review: Madonna's greatest-hits singalong is autobiographical, celebratory

Madonna still sets the standard for multimedia arena concerts.

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Yes Madonna still has it.

I mean, that’s essentially the question, right? Madonna Louise Ciccone has been doing this for an awfully long time, as you’ll find out if you catch her Celebration tour. The new show — which hit the Bell Centre Thursday and returns to the Habs rink Saturday — is like a live version of a biopic. Elton John did it in book form and in the movie Rocket Man.

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And Madonna, appropriately enough, has decided that the best way to do her autobiography is on stage.

The two-hour concert is a greatest-hits singalong in the tradition of pretty much every heritage act out there on the road, from the Rolling Stones to the Cure to Rod Stewart. But Madonna is nothing if not ambitious and so she’s taken the hits and used them to tell her life story.

And that’s pretty cool. Madonna clearly wants to remind her fans of where she comes from and what she’s done, and she underlines in the show that her roots aren’t mainstream. At one point, she straps on an electric guitar and does an intense version of her early single Burning Up, introducing it by saying that the first time she played it was at the legendary New York City punk club CBGBs.

During Live to Tell, she pays tribute to all of the people who died of AIDS, with giant screens featuring endless images of faces. At another point, she talks about performing at the famed Manhattan club Danceteria early in her career. It’s a celebration of her past and of Madonna’s constant quest to forge her own identity and not let anyone else do that for her.

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But the frustration is that as autobiographical as it is, I came away still not feeling that we’d found out who Madonna is.

“It’s hard to tell the story of your life through music,” Madonna said.

There’s the Catholicism (captured in the anthem Like a Prayer), there’s the uninhibited sexuality, showcased with numerous up-close-and-personal choreographies with her dancers, both male and female. She still tries to push the envelope with very suggestive interactions between her and the dancers and back in the day, that was the source of some controversy.

It doesn’t seem particularly shocking now, which is maybe a tribute to how she helped changed our cultural world.

Kudos to Madonna for making this an onstage memoir. She could’ve just come out and done the old chestnuts and everyone would’ve gone home satisfied. I chatted with a few fans and they all said the same thing: Madonna’s music has been the soundtrack of their life from a young age and they figure this might be one of the last chances to see her.

Madonna is 65 and looked in great shape, strutting across the two stages. Given that many much older rock stars — hello Mick and Keith! — are still out on the road at a much advanced age, there’s no reason to think there won’t be plenty of Madonna nostalgia tours to come.

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Virtually all the big hits are there. She performs many of the most popular songs in the first half, including Everybody, Into the Groove, Open Your Heart, Holiday, Live to Tell and Vogue. The downside is there aren’t many crowd favourites in the late going.

The show is more musical theatre than it is a traditional pop show. There are a few guest musicians, but mostly it’s Madonna singing to backing tracks and pretty well every song features elaborate choreography and lots of video images. I would have preferred live musicians, but maybe I’m a bit old school.

The packed crowd seemed happy enough with what they got, but I kept waiting for that moment where she’d really commune with the crowd. The closest she came was with Ray of Light, one of her best songs, delivering an inspiring ultra-intense version, decked out in a sparkly jump suit with wraparound shapes in a mini-stage hanging from the rafters.

The low point was a mash-up of Like a Virgin and Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean, with shadow images of them on a screen dancing together. It seemed gimmicky and given the allegations of abuse levelled at Jackson, it was a questionable concept.

But for the most part, Madonna still sets the standard for multimedia arena concerts – with incredible visuals, eye-popping choreography from her dance crew, and full-on charisma from the Material Girl herself.

There will always be grumblers, but that just seems to fire up Madonna more.

“I think the most controversial thing I’ve done is to stick around,” said Madonna Thursday night.

That line got a big cheer, because clearly everyone there was pleased-as-punch that Madonna did indeed stick around.

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