Oh, Bey. Just to be sure everyone does obey and stick to the 100 percent sanctioned version, the subject puts herself in charge in Beyonce: Life Is But a Dream. Executive produced and co-directed by Beyonce Knowles, who also provides its sole perspective, this is less a documentary portrait than a micromanaged video diary exploring the R&B superstar’s relationship with her laptop. The HBO film will be candy to her fan base; just don’t expect startling insights into the woman behind the talent.
In the spotlight since her teens in the late-’90s, when she emerged as the bootylicious centerpiece of Destiny’s Child, Beyonce, to her credit, has navigated the transition into a Grammy-laden, multimillion-album-selling solo career without serving herself up on the TMZ tabloid platter. Her image has been as carefully engineered and polished as her music. But despite making an ostensible show of peeling back the layers here to share the grit and pain beneath the glamour, she mostly offers platitudes dressed up as philosophical reflection.
As HBO is marketing it, this is Beyonce: “Raw. Real. Revealed.” But actually the 90-minute film is repetitious and bland. There’s a lot of pseudo-inspirational stuff, some standard speechifying about female empowerment and thoughts on the stress of success, punctuated by occasional speculation on “God’s plan.” But the documentary walks a muddy path between self-mystification and self-adulation without actually saying much. And her music becomes almost an afterthought.
Do the rich, famous and fabulous really need to keep reminding us that celebrities are not invulnerable creatures with perfect lives? “I cry,” says Beyonce. “My feelings get hurt like anyone else.” True, no doubt, but also trite. To hammer the point home, her most intimate confessions are delivered without makeup in late-night huddles with her MacBook.
Beyonce shares directing credit with cinematographer Ed Burke, a regular collaborator on her concert films who clearly wasn’t hired to ask the tough questions. With an objective eye and a probing interviewer behind the camera, there might have been something more substantial here than a glossy promo video to follow her Super Bowl appearance and precede her fifth studio album and world tour. Some input from key figures in Beyonce’s private and professional world also might have helped.
Like many sturdier films, this one is bookended by episodes of heartache and joy. It opens with the singer’s difficult decision to break with her father Matthew Knowles’ management in 2011. Beyonce says the goal was to separate business from family, allowing her to pursue creative and commercial independence. And it closes with the birth of Blue Ivy Carter, her daughter with husband Jay-Z. (He shows up a few times in the film but says nothing, though he does do some bad Coldplay karaoke.)
While Beyonce points out that her baby was born out of a conflict, the reasons behind the split from her father are kept vague. She acknowledges that her drive and perfectionism come from him but then drifts off into the abstract: “I’m so fragile at this point. I feel like my soul has been tarnished.” Rather than addressing the rift head-on, she takes the circumspect route by singing a few verses of “Listen” from Dreamgirls to place herself “alone at a crossroads.”
The film’s one significant disclosure, widely leaked in advance publicity, is that two years before the birth of her daughter, Beyonce suffered a miscarriage early in her first pregnancy. This explains why she kept her second pregnancy quiet for as long as possible. Many women, in particular, will relate to these experiences, and Beyonce’s account of them is as near as the documentary gets to emotional exposure.
But for a supposed close-up, this is generally a very selective view. Beyonce talks up the importance for her of female solidarity, swearing, “I need my sisters.” But her actual siblings get only a brief mention or two, as do her former Destiny’s Child sidekicks. The latter are glimpsed in home-video clips, including one where they goof off singing The Cardigans’ “Lovefool.”
Rather than a self-portrait, this is a scrupulously processed diptych. On one hand there’s the sexual gladiatrix onstage, with the ubiquitous wind machine whipping up the mane of magic hair and the Tina Turner shimmy fringe. On the other, there’s the soulful, misunderstood goddess at home on the sofa with the regal updo, rambling on about connecting the dots and finding her path. I know which one I’d rather be watching.