At the apex of her career, Madonna sought out a 24-year-old filmmaker to record a tour stop on her Blond Ambition World Tour, impressed by the student film he'd made at Harvard. When he pitched a full-length documentary, against the advice of everyone around her, she said yes, funding the project herself and serving as an executive producer.
The film was Truth or Dare, and marked the feature debut of Alek Keshishian. With unprecedented access to inarguably one of the biggest stars in the world, the director's film was equal parts concert film and confessional. For a decade after its debut, it remained the highest-grossing documentary ever made.
"With Madonna, I almost felt like I was just a channel. Something's happening through me," Keshishian says. "I felt like something bigger was organizing everything, and I had that same sensation, weirdly, with Selena. Both my experiences in doc have felt a little bit out-of-body."
He didn't entertain the thought of making another music documentary until Selena Gomez approached him in 2015. (In the interim, he helmed two narrative features, 1994's With Honors and 2006's Love and Other Disasters, and co-wrote 2011's W.E. with Madonna.) At the time, Gomez was about to embark on her Revival Tour and was inspired by seeing Truth or Dare.
"I was like, 'Who is watching Truth or Dare in 2015?'" Keshishian exclaims. "She said she watched it seven times in a row. I don't use this word but she did: She was like, 'I felt like I was watching a work of art.' Even at 24" — the same age Keshishian was when he made the film — "there was something in her that went, 'I want to do something like that, a work of art.'"
In conversation with A.frame, the filmmaker reflects on his journey from Truth or Dare to My Mind & Me.
What did you learn about yourself as a filmmaker and as an artist from your time with Madonna?
I was young. Everyone said, "You should watch all the documentaries that came before." I had two huge boxes of VHSs — all the music docs— and four days before we were going to Japan, I just went, "I'm not going to watch any of them." I had that 24-year-old mojo to go, "I'm just going to invent it." That freedom, that 24-year-old freedom of not worrying about how something you're making is going to be received, gave me the freedom to just create. Because there's that tension between wanting to know what came before but also wanting to break out and do something new and not just an iteration of the past. That's always been interesting for me.
I have to assume when that film did as well as it did, that the offers poured in from other musicians wanting you to do their docs.
Yeah, I had a lot of interest from a lot of musicians, obviously, and I turned everything down. I just was like, "No."
Why say no?
Because I felt like I'd done it. I felt like I'd gotten lightning in a bottle. My work is quite sporadic, as you see, much to the annoyance of my agents and managers. I don't like to repeat myself. Most people do something that's their brand, and then, they keep doing iterations of it, and that's never interested me. I feel like if I've done it, I've done it. I want to do something new.
Then comes Selena Gomez. What was it about what she envisioned this could be —
She didn't envision anything.
She literally was like, "You have vision, and I'd love you to take your vision and use me." That was the same with Madonna. I was so lucky. Everyone went, "But Madonna is a control freak." She never came into the edit room. She never told me to cut one single thing. People were like, "How's that possible?" I said, "A control freak only gives up control to another control freak." In the case of Madonna, we had that soul bond, and she trusted me. I think Madonna thought of me as an artist, and I was so lucky that Selena thought of me as that as well. It was not like something she was ordering at a restaurant. She was like, "Can you just do something?" And it took time.
When I do these docs, I want to capture the essence of the person. To begin with, I need to feel like there's an essence that I'm interested in capturing. Because, with Madonna, I was in her orbit for six, seven, eight years as her best, best, best friend. With Selena, it was a different journey. It was six years of slowly getting to know her and getting closer, and closer, and closer. These are big commitments for me when I do them. They don't always have to be, but for these two, this is what had to be. I think there is a similarity in that both these artists came to me and treated me as an artist as well, and said, "Go with your vision."
I never knocked on a door with Madonna. Her security, everyone knew that I had carte blanche. Selena goes, 'I'll give you that.'
What about your vision for this, then, convinced you to make another music documentary? That it wasn't going to be another iteration of something you'd already done with Truth or Dare?
When she first came to me in 2016, she was like, "Would you do a Truth or Dare for me on Revival?" I was like, "I don't think you want that." She was like, "No, no, no, I do." I was like, "I'm really intrusive. I'm always there. I'm always going to be filming. I have full access to everything. I never knocked on a door with Madonna. Her security, everyone knew that I had carte blanche." She goes, "I'll give you that." I said, "You can give me that, but then it goes one step further. I can shoot that, but are you really going to be okay?"
I could sense that she was tender and young. Madonna was 30-something. She was a fully grown woman. We shot for a few weeks with Selena, and she was true to her word, but I could sense that she was in that stage of evolution. I think we both realized it wouldn't be right to introduce a camera into that period. We just stopped filming. I was lucky enough to be working with Interscope and Lighthouse, which allowed that, because I was like, "I'm not committing to making a documentary. You guys want to pay for me to shoot for a few weeks? Great." And basically, I was like, "There's nothing here right now." Then, all those years later, I was able to go back and it had a different context.
It's been 30 years since Truth or Dare. How do you feel like you've evolved as a filmmaker?
Other people can see your evolution more than you can. It's like getting taller. I think I'm a very different person. I'm a different filmmaker than I was when I was 24. At 24, I was really fascinated by the sparkle and the flash of a celebrity like Madonna. As you get older, you start getting a little bit more aware of the world and what else is going on. When I met Selena, I was in my 50s, and I was beginning to really look inward to try to find more meaning in my life.
I had done the Hollywood thing. I'd done the celebrity thing. It was really fortuitous that I met someone like Selena, whose story is literally about wrapping that part up and saying, "That's not real. That's not the important stuff of life." It was a weird, synchronistic moment where my sense of myself and my vision was changing, and then, I got this amazing subject that seemed right on point to some of the things that I was thinking about.
In this era of social media and artists being able to record whatever they want on their phone and put it online for their fans, what power do you think the music documentary still holds?
I think that's a really interesting point. Well, first of all, one of the reasons I didn't want to do a music doc was because, once social media came in, we started to create a false sense of reality. It was curated, but everyone pretended that was real, but it was self-curated. I think that film is always someone, a subject, and someone who's recording that person. In social media, you're doing both roles. There isn't that dynamic. Once social media happened, I really thought, "It's over." I couldn't imagine any artist, or any manager, or label actually agreeing to let a director truly take over and create something.
Look, anything that's edited is already not really the truth, because you're putting a subjective structure into what the truth is. But the other thing is that I love cinéma vérité, and that really has become corrupted by reality television, by this idea of, "We have three weeks to shoot this, so let's make it count." Cinéma vérité takes patience and it takes faith. You have to understand, when I re-picked up the camera, I was just saying, "Yeah, I can do a little film of her going to Kenya." Selena vibed with me, but I kept saying, "This may only end up being 10-minutes long. It may only be 15-minutes long." It wasn't really until after we did London and Paris that I went, "There's a documentary here. There's a feature documentary." Because that's when I saw, "Wow, this story has unfolded, and I haven't had to overly manipulate anything for it to unfold. And it's amazing."
If you learned a sense of creative freedom on Truth or Dare, what did you learn about yourself as a filmmaker and an artist working with Selena on this?
In the course of making this movie and really bonding with her, I realized that I really wanted to make a conscious difference in the world. A conscious one. Truth or Dare, I think, unconsciously helped people. I hope. With age, you get more conscious about it. I suddenly went, "I never want to do something that I don't feel is bringing something to the world." In other words, I'm not interested in just entertainment. I'm interested in actually changing somebody through the art of cinema, touching that person and having them change from the person they were before they saw it, to the person that they are after.
In our world, there's so many opportunities to make content that I'm lucky I had that moment to go, "I don't want to get into that sausage factory, into that world where we're just churning out content." I'm not saying I'm better than that, but, as a creative person, I realized that's not my calling. There was a nice freedom to finally being able to say, "I don't know that I'll make another movie, another 10 movies. I don't need to be prolific."
By John Boone