'Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B': TV Review

Alexandra Shipp Aaliyah - P 2014
Courtesy of Lifetime

Alexandra Shipp Aaliyah - P 2014

She may have been one in a million, but 'Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B' isn't able to light the fire that shows why her legacy is still burning bright.

The controversial TV movie finally gets its premiere

Based on Christopher John Farley's book Aaliyah: More Than a Woman, Lifetime's Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B follows the meteoric rise of the young singer, who was tragically killed in a plane crash in the Bahamas in 2001. 

The project was defined early on by many fits and starts, including the first actress cast as Aaliyah, Zendaya Coleman, leaving the production after heavy criticism on all sides (including her own). Coleman was then replaced by Alexandra Shipp, who also sings the movie's few songs, after a lawsuit from Aaliyah's family blocked the rights to her hits. The family's main concern, it seems, was the portrayal of Aaliyah's relationship and brief (illegal) marriage to R. Kelly (played by Clé Bennett), which the family has always staunchly denied, despite court documents proving its truth. Finally, the casting of Chattrisse Dolabaille as Missy Elliot, and Izaak Smith as Timbaland also led to concerns about the production being "white-washed."  

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So at last, this potentially controversial production has found its premiere date on Lifetime, but the results don't quite live up to the hype. Though her vocals don't match Aaliyah's gorgeous cadence (that would have been too much to ask of anyone), Shipp is beautiful and likable in the role but lacks a necessary magnetism. The same is essentially true for everyone in the production. Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B simmers along pleasantly, but never finds its fire.

Then again, Aaliyah's short life, aside from that business with R. Kelly, didn't really seem to have a lot of drama to it. The movie begins with her appearance in Star Search in 1989 and follows the dedication of her uncle, Barry Hankerson, as he gets the likes of Gladys Knight (Elise Neal, whose brief appearance is a highlight) and Kelly to become interested in his niece. Of course, it wasn't hard to convince anyone once they heard her sing, but Aaliyah's rise to fame feels -- in this production -- like the ABCs to becoming a star.

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Aaliyah wasn't a spoiled brat or a diva, though, and her mother Diane (Rachael Crawford) was no momager. It's refreshing to see the two's close relationship portrayed (and the close relationship of their entire family, as well as Aaliyah's down-to-earth attitude), but it also doesn't exactly make for exciting television. Perhaps that's why the movie spends its first half solidly entrenched with Aaliyah and Kelly's relationship and the blink-and-you'll-miss-them nuptials (which the family had annulled), as the only whiff of scandal.

There are many lessons to be learned by young starlets from Aaliyah's rise to stardom. In one exchange with label executives, she says, "I don't want to sound like everybody else," to which one replies excitedly, "You'll sound like money in the bank!" "I want to sound like myself," she emphasizes. It worked. Her collaborations with Timbaland continue to make their mark on the world of pop and R&B more than a decade later. She may have been one in a million, but despite a decent script from Michael Elliot, and a few split-screen effects from director Bradley Walsh, Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B fails to capture the magic of why her legacy is still burning bright.