The night after the Super Bowl I had dinner with my 65-year-old father and an old friend of his. We recapped the event, and while the two men had different opinions on the game and the commercials, they agreed on one thing: they do not get what the big deal is with Beyoncé.
Life Is But A Dream, HBO’s documentary about and largely by Beyoncé is not likely to change these old white guys' minds. It’s not a film (I use that term loosely) for those who haven’t yet realized that it’s Beyoncé’s world and we’re just living in it. It’s not even for the casual fan like me who finds Queen Bey attractive and entertaining and all but has not come anywhere close to using the word “flawless” when describing her. It’s for the true beylievers, for only Beyoncé’s biggest fans could look beyond the amount of superficiality and narcissism in the doc (which could stand to be a half-hour shorter, but again, this wasn’t made for people who would think there is such a thing as too much Beyoncé).
Skipping right past any sort of back-story as basic as where she was born or barely more than a half-mention of a little group called Destiny’s Child, LIBAD focuses, loosely, on the period from when its subject discovers she is pregnant up until roughly the present. However, the doc’s main theme is Beyoncé giving herself permission to be real and to be imperfect, both of which ring a little bit false as she looks flawless (oops) when videotaping and interviewing herself (which she does constantly) or when she lets a guy pretend to interview her. At times, the look we see when Beyoncé is beaming into her Mac’s camera reminded me of the look my infant son gives at himself in the mirror: complete delight and fascination.
The project made me think of Madonna’s Truth Or Dare, thanks to similarities like the backstage and rehearsal footage, the cheering throngs outside the hotel rooms and the cozy glamor of bathrobes and towels. But in Truth Or Dare, we saw Madonna be an asshole and yet truly vulnerable as she mocked Kevin Costner, talked about her relationship with Sean Penn and experienced tension with her father. While we see maybe one or two scenes where she’s a bit irritated with her stage personnel, when Beyoncé discusses some personal affairs (which I’ll get to shortly), they’re carefully-measured bits of information she has revealed with a lot of thought, not anything that was caught on-camera.
But it’s probably too much to ask for dirt and fireworks and realness from Beyoncé. There are a few scenes in LIBAD that feel seriously phony as opposed to calculated and polished: After she talks about the importance of the women in her life, as opposed to actually seeing anything from her mother Tina or her sister Solange or her former bandmembers, we instead see her bopping around singing to “Love Fool” with her friends, which seems like a girl doing an impression of what she thinks human girls do at sleepovers. That said, I don’t think Knowles is actually a bad egg. While she comes across as narcissistic, she’s in the business of narcissism. She has to look attractive (L’Oreal doesn’t pay people to be nice), she has to feed her fans, and she has to work and stay current. When compared to other megastars, especially ones who started out so young like Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston, she shouldn’t be faulted for coming across a bit bland and banal, as opposed to paranoid and severely damaged.
While remaining, as usual, mostly tight-lipped about the nature of her relationship with Jay-Z, Beyoncé addresses a few personal topics within the doc. At the beginning, she discusses breaking away from her father, Matthew Knowles, as her manager, but this is largely unrevealing aside from the fact that she admits that he withheld approval from her, which contributed to her ambition. Later, she discusses a miscarriage she suffered prior to her public pregnancy. The story itself is of course sad, but she delivers it reality TV confession-room style to her laptop the way she does so many of her self-interviews. However, we experience true vulnerability and sadness as we hear lyrics to an as-yet unreleased song about the event: “I guess love just wasn’t enough for us to survive,” “You took the life right out of me,” “I’m longing for your heartbeat.” These lyrics could be about a bad breakup but knowing what they’re about is tender and heartbreaking, not to mention an impressive show of personal songwriting.
And, of course, there’s Blue Ivy herself, whom we see briefly in the flesh (she looks just like her daddy, as do most babies) and in gestation as Beyoncé prepares for the Billboard Awards, a filmed concert and the MTV Music Awards. The concert footage, visually, is the best part of the film by far (unless you count the envy-stirring vacation footage. Spoiler alert: Jay-Z is a fan of lens flare.) Crisp, sparkling and vibrant, I wouldn’t have minded more behind the scenes stuff, like how we see the impressive graphics and choreography for “Run The World (Girls)” come together.
I find it no easier to summon strong feelings for Beyoncé after LIBAD than I could before it. The woman is easy on the eyes, she works hard, she’s talented, and she doesn’t seem to be Hitler-esque in any particular way, but she’s still a bit of a beautiful cipher with a mostly-beautiful life. But hey, if I were making a documentary about myself? I might try, despite my best efforts, to make myself look pretty good too.
- If you wanted to see footage of Beyoncé and Jay singing along to “Yellow” by Coldplay while on a yacht, this is the film for you.
- Also, did you miss Lady Gaga’s terribly unpopular boy character? Because he pops up in here more times than you would expect.
- There is one moment where Beyoncé hilariously lacks perspective where she complains that this current generation is too obsessed with image and superficiality, when this is a documentary that she made largely taken with footage that she recorded of herself and PS she also records her entire life all the time and keeps all the footage.
- Beyoncé on feminism: “It’s not about equal rights; it’s about how we think.” Ironically, I am still thinking that one over.
- I can’t believe Beyoncé’s publicist tried to take down those photos of her weird singing faces at the Super Bowl when Beyoncé’s weird singing faces are the best part of her performances, and she clearly makes them on purpose.
- Here are two jokes my husband made about Beyoncé tonight: “All the Pringle Ladies” will be her chip tie-in song, and when she goes on vacation to the Alps, she’s Ski-once.