Over the weekend, Beyoncé's "documentary," Life Is But a Dream, aired on HBO. It wasn't really a documentary, though, it was part video diary, part infomercial, part carefully staged interview intended to give viewers the sense that the singer was revealing all, when in fact, she revealed very little.
Although there were clips of Beyoncé speaking candidly to her laptop, on vacation with her husband, and behind-the-scenes at shows, there were few revelations. "I had to let go," she says of firing her father as her manager. She does not say much more. Nothing about her father's infidelity. Nothing about her parents' divorce. Nothing about the child her dad fathered with another woman while married. It was, as a friend called it, POPaganda. For a documentary, Life Is But a Dream was oddly light on concrete facts: Who are her friends? What is her ultimate goal? When she sings those songs about a man cheating on her, are the lyrics based in fact or imagined fiction? Who is the random guy in glasses she is talking to???
As The Washington Post's Hank Stuever writes:
Beyonce is a talker, but she's not much of an explainer; she never tells us where we're going or who people are, or what everyone is doing at a particular moment. She never even tells us the name of her baby, when, near the end of the film, she lets the camera linger briefly as she cuddles and nuzzles it.
One thing Beyoncé is very forthcoming about? Her miscarriage. "I picked out names, I envisioned what my child looked like," she says sadly, and talks about going to the doctor and discovering that her fetus had no heartbeat. Then she lets the lyrics of her song "Heartbeat" speak for her:
This love wasn't enough for us to survive
I swear, I swear, I swear I tried
You took the life right out of me
I'm so unlucky I can't breathe
You took the life right out of me
I'm longing for your heartbeat
But for the most part, the documentary — which had a seriously weak narrative and felt, at times, like it was wandering aimlessly — was basically a tease. She invites us in, but only part of the way. We're left in the foyer, seeing only what she allows us to see. The rooms with all the intimate stuff have closed doors. All we get is a carefully controlled version of her truth.
From Alessandra Stanley's review in the New York Times:
"I think when Nina Simone put out music, you loved her voice," Beyoncé says in the program. "That's what she wanted you to love. That's what — that was her instrument." She refers to a simpler time in the recording industry but glosses over Simone's very public profile in the civil rights movement. "But you didn't get brainwashed by her day-to-day life and what her child is wearing and who she's dating and, you know, all the things that really - it's not your business, you know? And it shouldn't influence the way you listen to the voice and the art. But it does."
And that rumination is a curiously tone-deaf moment in a film that is supposed to be an étude of self-discovery. For while it is true that Simone performed long before pop-music success was so dependent on appearance and the apparatus of fame, it is Beyoncé's mastery of that very apparatus, more than her voice, that rocketed her into the stratosphere.
Watching her turn herself into a spectacle — the singing, the choreography, the concepts behind the stage shows — is one of the true highlights of the film; that's when she is in her element. Creating an exaggerated version of herself. Artifice.
One of the other highlights? Hearing Beyoncé talk about women. With hits like "Independent Women," "Single Ladies" and "Run the World (Girls)," she has become a symbol for female strength and independence. Girl Power, as the Spice Girls called it. Now, she met Jay-Z when she was 18, started dating him when she was 19, got married in 2008 and broke up with her manager/dad in 2011. It's possible she has never not lived with a man, and may have gone from living with her mom and dad (one older man) — to living with another older man, Jay (she is now 31; he is 43). But churning out anthems — for and about women, that women relate to — is her bread and butter. When she touches on how she feels about women, it's quite an aha moment. Beyoncé recalls that when she was growing up, her mother owned a hair salon:
My mother was a therapist. She was more than a hairstylist. She was a therapist. And women would come into that salon with problems. They'd express themselves, they'd get a makeover and they'd walk out new women.
A testament to the sanctity of a safe space for women to bond. She also says:
There's nothing like a conversation with a woman that understands you… I need my sisters.
Of course, we don't really get to see her having a good old shoot-the-shit with a gaggle of women. The closest we come are snippets of home video in which she, her sister Solange and Kelly Rowland of Destiny's Child sing along to The Cardigans' "Love Fool." It's awesome to watch them having fun, but it lasts about 49 seconds, and there's no accompanying explanation. Do you talk about men? Fashion? Music? Other celebrities? All of the above? Give us something.
Later in the doc, Beyoncé really gets to the heart of Girl Power — or at least tries to:
Women have to work much harder to make it in this world. It really pisses me off that women don't get the same opportunities as men do, or money for that matter. Because lets face it, money gives men the power to run the show. It gives men the power to define our values and to define what's sexy and what's feminine and that's bullshit. At the end of the day, it's not about equal rights, it's about how we think. We have to reshape our own perception of how we view ourselves.
Yes! Um, wait, it's not about equal rights? Sigh.
Whether or not the documentary was good or bad (reviews are decidedly mixed) doesn't really matter, truthfully. It is what it is. It is what Beyoncé wanted us to see. And in wishing she would show us more, we may be wishing she were someone she is not. By wishing she would talk more about getting ahead in business, dealing with stress, keeping in touch with friends while juggling a busy schedule — by wishing she was more articulate in general — we're wishing she could be everything. Perfect. And she's not. No one is. As Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond writes in a piece called "The Black Hero Complex" for Ebony.com:
Heroism is governed by an unspoken covenant in which the hero must maintain the heroic narrative or lose the rewards of fan worship like cultural relevance, for example.
In the Black community, this covenant between our heroes and us mere mortals is arguably more sacred. Dr. Richard Orbe-Austin, President of the New York Association of Black Psychologists explains, "we as African-Americans tend to feel that we don't have as many heroes that are lauded within the society as a whole." Because of this, the doctor continues, "we feel a greater emotional connection to those who do have the opportunity to breakthrough."
It should be enough that Beyoncé is ridiculously talented, smart and beautiful. It shouldn't be a big deal that she — a self-described perfectionist — is not perfect, and cannot be everything we always wanted in a pop star. She really doesn't have to be. Perhaps the pressure to be seen as a flawless, rise-above-it all wonder woman is what keeps her from being truly revealing in the documentary. Or maybe, despite her best attempts at opening up, she really is a deeply private person whose control freak tendencies prevent her from letting down those walls. Or could it be that her narcissistic attempts at self-reflection were stymied by her narcissistic attempts to have everything look the way she wants it to look? Either way, it could be argued that if you were let down by the rather boring documentary, it doesn't matter, because Beyoncé is still an impressive human being. She has stunning singing and performance skills, her work ethic is impeccable, she's a global phenomenon, her net worth is off the charts. She's amazing at theatricality and artifice; she's just not a very good documentarian. So what.
In Brew-Hammond's words:
Society needs heroes. Seeing people overcome overwhelming odds or achieve seemingly impossible goals inspires us with the truth that the possibility exists for us to do the same. That said, we need a new covenant with our heroes that takes the pretense of perfection off the table. Because, really, what's most compelling and useful about the narrative of heroism is the reality of how the hero got there-human frailty and all.
Did Beyonce's 'Life Is But A Dream' Documentary Reveal Enough? [MTV]
Another Cog in the Machinery of Divahood [New York Times]
Did Beyonce reveal enough in HBO show? [USA Today]
Beyoncé's Selfie Documentary, By the Numbers [The Cut]
Beyonce's 'Life Is But A Dream' on HBO: Who run the world? Beyonce. [EW]
‘Life is But a Dream': Beyonce's world, seen through a mish-mash [The Washington Post]