HBO aired Beyoncé and Jay Z's "On the Run" tour documentary last night, giving everyone who missed it live glimpse the highs, the lows, the tribulations, and the drama, glory be.
Certain aspects of the hyper-curated, high-art-aspiring production were very much a part of the current era of Jay and Bey, in which they're essentially American royalty—Bey's costumes, for example, were custom-made by Versace. (The main difference between the documentary, filmed in Paris this month, and their July concert at Metlife Stadium in New Jersey: artful jump-cuts of Beyoncé's superhuman choreography; artful slow-mo shots of Beyoncé's preternatural hair flips.) But past the black-and-white, Godard-aspiring art film that propelled the narrative.
The show opened up en français, casting Beyoncé as a love-struck Jean Seberg to Jay's debonair Jean-Paul Belmondo. The setup played on an archetype from a simpler time: "'03 Bonnie & Clyde," back when Bey was still heading up Destiny's Child, their relationship was only rumored, and the double-denim revolution was still in its first iteration. The entire concert was a 2014 retelling of the original "'03 Bonnie & Clyde" video, albeit with nicer cars, fiercer make-up artists, and a Cinderella ending. Accordingly, they opened with that track—"mami's a rider, and I'm a roller"—contrasting ye olde ancient Rocawear with Rodarte and Margiela, Bonnie and Clyde on stainless steel black card procured via dubious means (cued the chorus of "Move That Dope," in case anyone watching has never heard a Jay Z song). Stakes is higher, and profile too, but all anybody really seems to want to ask is, are they getting a deevorceee?
It's a valid question, because if they break up the earth will be hurled spinning into space, only to collide with the sun, where all of humanity deserves to burn to a crisp for allowing this to happen. Naturally, the storyline played into this, and it was told brilliantly, through song sequencing and sound clips from faux voicemails left by an increasingly angry Beyoncé on Jay's burner. Break-up songs built toward the end of the show with Bey's acting "prowess" in full effect—Jay did "99 Problems," Bey countered with "If I Were a Boy," and then transitioned into a cover of Lauryn Hill's "Ex-Factor" as a lead-in to Jay's "Song Cry," in all its emo quintessence.
The "On the Run" setlist was pretty equally divided up between Jay and Bey, but without the blessed presence of the boozy, male, 30-something Jay stans that surrounded my seat in Jersey, the whole affair comes off as decidedly Beyoncé-centric, held aloft with the many woman-power (even feminist, imagine!) tracks Bey's been pushing since the first days of Destiny's Child. "Flawless" went over well in Paris, where feminism is endemic to French intellectual thought. There were shades of de Beauvoir when the word "FEMINIST" was projected on-screen and the audience screamed. Bey rolled up with her massive cadre of women dancers, her oft-touted all-woman band, her Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie sample, her surprise guest Nicki Minaj (in matching Versayce), her best girl Blue Ivy, and an iron-clad Houston mean-mug that rivaled her husband's and showed who meant beeswax. That mug remained intact through even the most strenuous choreography. (Beyoncé's awesome athletic power, nearly unmatched in the pop oeuvre, is an important part of her queen divatude and a main reason she's got one of the best live shows going.)
Les Twins, the gymnastic Parisian backup dancers she employs as the token dudes onstage, seem like they probably had to be jumped in by her woman-posse, and Jay, at times, seemed a bit like an accoutrement. That might seem like an absurd thing to say about one of the most prominent pop stars since hip-hop became the dominant culture, but even Jay seemed to agree: at concert's end, he thanked Beyoncé for performing with him and called her "the best entertainer of our time." She legitimately teared up.
Throughout this tour, internet sleuths spent months trying to decipher what her every facial expression meant, whether she was standing too far away from Jay during "Drunk in Love," and was she about to start crying in the middle of whatever-ballad?. There was a certainty that there'd be some insight into their deeevorce somewhere, same as how now everyone is sweating whether or not a second pregnoncé is in the cards. You could almost feel the New York Post's thirst for a break-up to go down simply so they could run the inevitable headline, "DIVORCÉ!" Virtually no one seemed to consider that the divorce rumors were "leaked" so their tour might be more profitable, or to simply troll us. Who will ever know the truth? The mailer-daemon at Parkwood, Beyoncé's hard drives, mayyyyybe Solange.
But the tour finale included footage from their wedding (as well as the couple getting "IV" tattooed on their ring fingers), so joke's on y'all, internet forums. The ceremony was, apparently, idyllic: there were icicles cascading from the ceiling and candles so bright and large they looked fake, and Bey's dress glowed like she was the star of Hunger Games, which is all this crazy world of paparazzi and false information and tabloids are, anyway. That image aired during "Young Forever," definitely top three corniest songs on the setlist but at that point, the narrative had trumped all else.
Throughout "On the Run," the Jumbotron also featured a treasure chest of behind-the-scenes Blue Ivy footage, blessed baby of the universe, anointed child of future generations. At the Jersey concert, there was nary a dry eye in the house when those baby home movies aired. I bawled my face off, perhaps a little greased up by the Strawberita (thanks, Metlife Stadium). On television, that effect might be diluted a bit—part of the joy of crying or generally emoting at stadium concerts is knowing that everyone else is emoting with you, a moment of mass IRL community—but the message is still totally clear. Bonnie and Clyde grew up, bought real estate, had a kid. "THIS IS REAL," a placard announces, flipping the cops-and-robbers fairy tale the "French new-wave film" sold us the whole way through. Debord weeps, laughs, and throws up a Roc diamond.