Express yourself: why Madonna directing her own biopic isn’t as ominous as it sounds

Agreat deal of excitement greeted the news, on Tuesday, that Madonna would direct her own biopic, from a screenplay written by the singer with Diablo Cody (Juno, Young Adult). Millions of admirers of the singer’s career as an icon of music and pop culture were joined by dozens of fans of her film career in celebrating the announcement. But what does Madonna helming her own biopic presage for the quality of the movie to come?

Initial signs, it must be said, are middling. In producing her own biopic, Madge is joining a recent spate of musical biopics including Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody, both of which were produced by their subjects, politely received by critics, in contention for awards, and fared well at the box office. At the start of both films, there were concerns that the movies would lead to a soft-soaping of their subjects: Sacha Baron Cohen quit the Queen movie early on, saying in essence that the film was too much about the success of the band Queen and not enough about Freddie Mercury; he was replaced by Rami Malek, who duly won an Oscar. This stuff pleases the fans, and the acts of mimicry involved invariably lead to plaudits for the actors involved (not least because we all know the celebrities they are imitating, and can therefore easily judge whether the impression is successful), but does it make for great cinema? This writer would argue not.

Madonna being so closely involved in the making of her own biopic could go either way: arguably, we might get closer to a full picture of the person behind the fame than ever before, by having her co-write and direct the film; equally, this could lead to an exercise lacking in introspection and self-criticism. The biopic genre hardly flies very high at the best of times: the format lends itself to rather rote storylines revolving around key breakthroughs in the artist’s life, rather than creating a fully artistic proposition, one that might look at the performer from an angle. Not every film should follow this model, of course, but I’m Not There, Todd Haynes’s magnificently awkward look at the life and music of Bob Dylan, was all the more interesting for the way it sidestepped pure facts and splintered the man at its heart into several characters.

A further warning sign, of course, comes from Madonna’s previous career in cinema, which has had mixed results to say the least. Though her acting debut in Desperately Seeking Susan met with some enthusiasm, and she won a Golden Globe for Evita, Madonna is also dogged by a kind of cursed reputation as far as film is concerned: she has won a record number of Razzie awards for her onscreen performances in such mediocrities as Who’s That Girl and The Next Best Thing, and her pet project W.E. was savaged by the press. On film Madonna seems to radiate discomfort: she doesn’t lack presence, but she has struggled to commit to a performance, and always seems to come off as more herself than anybody else.

There is a paradox here in that Madonna has been probably the most visually arresting artist of her time, and her career and music videos attest to an ability to use pictures really interestingly. She has also shown, famously, an ability to change and reinvent herself over the years, often with the use of the moving image. Directors such as David Fincher, Chris Cunningham and Jonas Åkerlund pop up in her videography; at least three of her music videos (Mary Lambert’s Like a Prayer, Fincher’s Vogue and Cunningham’s Frozen) are iconic works, still known and referenced to this day.

All of this, I would argue, bodes rather well for Madonna’s biopic project: her video work, and her efforts to create an iconography of herself, from costumes to her Sex book, are successful because they centre on Madonna herself. For an artist who has always been so resolutely in command of her image, this film offers an opportunity to create a work that adds to her own legacy. It may be that the film we get, while likely to be propagandistic in nature, is madly fascinating in what it reveals of Madonna’s manipulation of image. After all, she is the subject that she knows most about; though her music stays resolutely away from the personal, her videos all centre on herself. That she won’t be acting in this film is a bonus.

The film-maker Mark Cousins tweeted about his excitement, adding: “Autobiopics can be great: Jodorowsky, Fellini, Varda, Bill Douglas, Youssef Chahine, Sarah Polley, Joanne Hogg. So many more.” Passing over the fact that these artists had paid their dues as film-makers before getting round to their own lives, there is something to be said for the way the personal can bring out previously unheard of qualities in an artist. Polley’s Stories We Tell is confessional but also slippery, making use of stand-ins and blurring the lines of autofiction: if Madonna uses this as an exercise in myth-building, it may be that her film-making abilities are lifted to new heights.