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Mad About Madonna : 'Like a Prayer' More Love Song Than Blasphemy : Video Review

March 08, 1989|CHRIS WILLMAN

Madonna is frequently in the tabloids. Stigmata sightings are frequently in the tabloids. So the purportedly shocking imagery of the pop singer's controversial new video clip "Like a Prayer" could be Weekly World News' dream come true: Madonna Bears Stigmata .

Contrary to early reports, however, Madonna does not make love to a Christ figure in thevideo. Wrong dream sequence. (Where was she when Marty Scorsese needed her?)

Whatever is or isn't in this highly stylized clip--which is currently airing exclusively on MTV--the key question in the wake of the uproars over "The Last Temptation of Christ" and "The Satanic Verses" will no doubt be: Is the video blasphemous?

It doesn't even come close. It's a secular love song that has no more to do with religion than "Like a Virgin" had to do with virginity.

Not that the imagery in the video isn't very much designed to be provocative and irreverent.

So far as it's possible to tell amid all the symbolism and jump-editing, the racism-related story line goes something like this: Clad in revealing lingerie, Madonna enters an empty church where she is drawn to a statue of a young black man robed in white--a saint or a martyr, perhaps?--behind bars. She lies down on a pew and is apparently overcome by a vision, while the statue comes to life.

In this vision, the scenario of a recent crime is unveiled before her: A group of white thugs attacks and stabs a white woman, but a black man who comes to her aid is arrested. Madonna is then awakened from her vision by a raucous black choir marching through the church. She trots down to the local jail, where she vouches for the jailed man's innocence before the police--who presumably believe the fever dream of a woman who is standing at the sergeant's desk wearing only a brassiere and a slip.

That's the story line, but there's more--much more--that could conceivably shock or offend.

Madonna sings in front of a field of burning crosses. Madonna handles the murder weapon, a knife, and suddenly is supernaturally afflicted with bleeding nail wounds in her palms. Madonna does an uninhibited, giddy little dance with a gospel troupe, and at one point gets down on her knees while a choir member puts a hand on Madonna's forehead, faith healer-style. Rather than fall backward from the healing touch, Madonna appears as if she might be about to fall out of her bra.

Are the protesters lined up yet?

Madonna would no doubt argue that her detractors exaggerate the video's sexual content, which is minimal if you don't count immodesty of dress.

She wants to show that she can amply display her hourglass figure and still be a complete innocent, guiltlessly joining a choir in a place of worship at the happy finale with a childlike glee. Indeed, she even dances with a little boy--a scene reminiscent of her superior video a few years back for "Open Your Heart," in which, playing a stripper, she danced off into the sunset with a young boy.

For video aficionados, "Like a Prayer" is heartening for its bold use of a narrative approach--something seen less and less of late. At its best, the conceptual pop video can serve as a resurrection of the silent film, telling stories without dialogue, as here.

But how clever is the story being told? At its core, "Like a Prayer" is a rather basic redemptive tale, one perhaps bogged down more than buoyed by its weighty and often gratuitous symbolism. It's an attention-grabber with some nice cinematic touches, but the only viewers it's likely to truly move are those whose hands reflexively jerk toward phones or picket signs at the slightest provocation.

Which may be part of the idea.

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