This summer Madonna turned 52. To celebrate (“Holidaaay!”), Robin Monica Alexander and Kelly Stitzel are paying homage to one of Madge’s weirdest records, which also just celebrated a birthday: the big two-oh.
Released on May 22, 1990, I’m Breathless is, at least theoretically, a soundtrack to Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, in which Madonna costars as singing gun moll Breathless Mahoney (see what she did with the album’s title there?).
We use the word “soundtrack” very loosely. See, only four of the songs on the album appear in Dick Tracy, and one, “Now I’m Following You,” isn’t even performed by Madonna-as-Breathless in the movie. The rest are just Madonna songs “inspired by” — and, we’re guessing, performed by — her character. (If you want a Dick Tracy soundtrack album with no Madonna songs at all, you have your choice between one featuring Jerry Lee Lewis and Ice-T, among others, and Danny Elfman’s score.)
I’m Breathless actually did quite well on the charts, reaching #2 on the Billboard 200 and spawning two hit singles, the world-altering “Vogue” and the lesser “Hanky Panky.” It also contains the 1990 Oscar winner for Best Song: “Sooner or Later,” written by Stephen Sondheim.
By the time I’m Breathless came along, Madonna was pretty comfortably the biggest female pop star of the era. Five of her previous six albums, including the soundtrack for Who’s That Girl?, had reached the top ten on the Billboard 200 (the exception was You Can Dance, her first remix album, which Kelly loves to pieces and Robin Monica owns on vinyl); she’d also released 18 top-ten singles. Not bad considering she’d only been in the music business for eight years. “I’m so happy with what I got,” Madonna sings in another of the Sondheim-penned songs from Dick Tracy, before adding, “I want more!”
But becoming the best-selling female recording artist of the 20th century wasn’t enough for this working-class girl from Michigan. As she’d done before, and would do again, Madonna was determined to give it a go in the movies, because if she could sing and dance her way into the world’s dreams and fantasies, she was sure she could eventually act her way there, too. This unfortunate obsession with being a movie star has led to some of the worst decisions of her career; the occasional successes — Desperately Seeking Susan, A League of Their Own, and, to a lesser degree, Evita — cannot, and do not, make up for the horrors of Shanghai Surprise, Body of Evidence, The Next Best Thing, and Swept Away.
Dick Tracy is an example of everything-but-the-kitchen-sink filmmaking: enormous star power (Beatty, Madonna, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman and James Caan in cameos) and an Oscar-winning director accustomed to having total control (Beatty again), not to mention sex appeal, kid appeal, and toy appeal. In other words, it’s a mess. The production went $22 million over budget — quite a sum 20 years ago — and Disney spent even more money marketing the thing, hoping for Batman-size box office returns and merchandise sales.
For all the cash thrown around, the movie looks cheap, and Madonna seems to have gone down the same path on I’m Breathless. While the numbers from the film are fully orchestrated, as befits a story set in the 1930s (when Chester Gould created the Dick Tracy comic strip), Madonna’s originals, with the exception of “Vogue,” are all backed by cheesy, cold keyboards, as if she recorded them in someone’s garage. This would be troubling enough if the songs were her usual fare, but considering they’re mostly ersatz jazz/swing/big-band tunes, perhaps they could’ve been played by, you know, a big band?
A few tracks from I’m Breathless succeed on the level of infectious silliness. “Hanky Panky” is a (cough) cheeky ode to light bondage that works well enough when played at gay dance parties, and “I’m Going Bananas” is a clever homage to the Latin-culture craze inspired by FDR’s Good Neighbor policy. Unfortunately, “Bananas” and other songs on the album are sung in the cutesy Betty Boop voice Madonna should’ve retired after her 1987 rendition of “Santa Baby.” One can hear her making an extra vocal effort on most of the tracks, but her Ray of Light pipes were still eight years away.
Outside of the context of Dick Tracy, I’m Breathless makes no sense whatsoever. It’s not good jazz, nor is it top-notch Madonna, with the exception of “Vogue,” of course. A holdover from the Like a Prayer sessions, where it was almost relegated to the B side of “Keep It Together” (what were they smoking?), “Vogue” stands head and shoulders above everything else on I’m Breathless. However, its inclusion on the album no doubt made Madonna’s fans slightly more forgiving of her experiment with Depression-era pop.
In the two decades that have followed I’m Breathless, Madonna has (mostly) made up for this stinker by releasing records that have turned out to be huge milestones in her career as well as in the pop world, including the controversial Erotica (1992); the R&B-laced Bedtime Stories (1994); the ethereal and, in Kelly’s opinion, brilliant Ray of Light (1998); the incredibly fun Music (2000); and her return to her early dance roots, Confessions on a Dance Floor (2005), which made Robin Monica cry with joy on a daily basis for at least six months.
At 52 Madonna is still a force to be reckoned with in music, no matter what people say about her odd spiritual practices and the babies she bought in Malawi. She continues to reinvent herself and her sound, even learning how to play guitar in order to silence the critics who’ve said she has no true musical talent. Though there have been some misses in recent years, like the albums American Life (2003) and Hard Candy (2008), she’s proven she still has what it takes to kick anyone’s ass, whether on the charts or on tour. Madonna is an icon, and she continues to leave us breathless.