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‘I’m Breathless’: Madonna’s ‘Dick Tracy’ Soundtrack Leaves Us Gasping
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In Depth

‘I’m Breathless’: Madonna’s ‘Dick Tracy’ Soundtrack Leaves Us Gasping

A witty triumph of innovation, ‘I’m Breathless’ was a part-soundtrack for ‘Dick Tracy’, and a Madonna album like no other.

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In a back catalogue that’s packed with curiosities, I’m Breathless: Music From And Inspired By The Film Dick TracyMadonna’s fifth studio set – is perhaps the hardest to pigeonhole. Part concept album and somewhat soundtrack sampler, it was also a determined effort to sprinkle some of the commercial gold-dust that blessed her recording career on a bid towards movie stardom.

Listen to ‘I’m Breathless’ here.

There was a lot riding on Madonna’s participation in the Warren Beatty and Disney vehicle Dick Tracy in 1990. Her part in 1985’s box-office smash Desperately Seeking Susan had wowed the critics on the back of the first wave of “Madonna mania”, but 1986’s Shanghai Surprise and 1987’s Who’s That Girl hadn’t quite reaped the same rewards. With the critical and commercial success of 1989’s Like A Prayer album suggesting that her recording career would only continue to soar, I’m Breathless was designed to act as a promotional project for both the film and her upcoming Blond Ambition World Tour, but it also has something to say about the “Queen Of Pop”’s increasingly maverick approach to her music.

Taking her place among the Hollywood elite

This was a Madonna record quite unlike anything that had gone before, offering a defiant two-finger salute to those who presumed to second-guess what might come next. Its sophisticated pop is genuinely surprising, with Patrick Leonard (her long-time collaborator, who had produced the True Blue and Like A Prayer records) co-penning the majority of the album’s tracks. And it’s a diverse offering. Cry Baby is an elegant, pitch-perfect 30s pastiche, the appropriately titled I’m Going Bananas plays it largely for laughs, and He’s A Man is a smoky torch song that revealed Madonna’s developing vocal dexterity.

The standout showstopper Something To Remember (later used as the title for Madonna’s first ballads collection) is brilliant, melodic high-drama, and the sort of track you could easily have imagined Sade tackling, while the Leonard-produced Back In Business proved Madonna could hold a show tune – which was handy as the maestro of the genre, Stephen Sondheim, had been persuaded to pen three numbers for Dick Tracy and its leading lady. Included here, they also provided highlights in the film, which performed well on its summer release (thanks in no small part to Madonna’s participation). A lot had clearly changed. The suggestion of a Madonna-Sondheim collaboration would have been roundly dismissed as fantasy just a few years earlier…

But what she delivered on the charismatic Sooner Or Later, the brash, brassy More and the tender duet with Mandy Patinkin, What Can You Lose, is nothing short of masterful. Sooner Or Later, which would win Best Original Song at the 1991 Academy Awards, is a measured, sultry triumph, and Madonna’s stunning live performance of the song at the ceremony amplified her star charisma to a new level, marking the moment she truly took her place as part of the Hollywood power elite. Hers, clearly, was a celebrity that wasn’t going anywhere.

A witty triumph of innovation

If the association with Disney also meant Madonna’s routine appetite for shock had to be dialled down a notch, I’m Breathless’ second single, Hanky Panky – a Top 10 hit on both sides of the Atlantic – is a pantomime nod towards her trademark pet topic of sex; it would feature in the 1990 Blond Ambition setlist and, even more surprisingly, the 2004 Re-Invention World Tour. And, of course, Madonna hadn’t entirely abandoned her dancefloor domain. On the two segments of Now I’m Following You – both featuring the film’s leading man, and Madonna’s then romantic partner, Warren Beatty – on vocals, there’s a catchy segue between the genres of the sophisticated, pastiche performance pieces and Madonna’s more familiar club-oriented pop. Which brings us to the I’m Breathless’ closing mega-hit…

Now hailed as one of the best Madonna songs of all time, the album’s lead single, Vogue, hadn’t been conceived as part of this collection. It was originally slated for release as the flipside of the final US Like A Prayer single, Keep It Together, but Madonna’s label immediately sensed it would be a huge hit, and so Vogue was held over and issued as a standalone release in March 1990, two months before I’m Breathless hit record stores. Paired with a groundbreaking David Fincher video-clip, it became the world’s top-selling single of the year – and another entry among an unstoppable run of Madonna No.1s – encouraging the singer to continue her partnership with its co-producer, Shep Pettibone, into the next era of her recording career, the more controversial Erotica project.

Released on 22 May 1990, I’m Breathless didn’t garner the notoriety expected of the best Madonna albums, but it sold more than seven million copies globally, remains the most leftfield of Madonna’s musical moves and is a witty triumph of her unique appetite for innovation. She would gain confidence from this experiment, and there would be more surprises to come…

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