Imagine, if you will, a throng of 30 paparazzi pushing, elbowing, and tussling with each other to get close enough to Detropia directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, and scream at them, “What happened to Detroit? What’s the future of urban America?What can be done about the decline of the post-industrial complex?
That’s what I was imagining while covering the splashy red carpet premiere of HBO’s Beyoncé: Life Is But a Dream documentary, which opens this Saturday, February 16th. Such ironic musings were my purpose, because I wanted to see, first-hand, this side of the spectrum of the documentary form.
Is it fair to call Beyoncé’s film, which she co-directed with Ed Burke, a documentary? Of course it is. Just because there was no red carpet or bling welcoming, say, director Doug Block’s The Kids Grow Up – a 90-minute kvetch about the emotions of a dad watching his daughter grow up – doesn’t make Block’s film any more of a documentary. Both films were 90 minutes long, both aired on HBO, and both are the filmmakers’ personal statements about their own lives. So, there, I hope that’s settled.
But is Beyoncé’s film any good? Let me start by saying that I’ve come around to being open to such self-serving celebrity dispatches ever since seeing Never Say Never, the 2011 documentary about Justin Bieber. That film surprised me because of its creative editing (using social media interface to open the film), enjoyable backstage banter and general entertainment value. And I was primed to like Life Is But a Dream because I, like millions of Americans, was totally blown away by Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance, where she had such immense on-stage charisma, I was literally star-struck.
Life Is But a Dream is not bad; it’s well shot, it has enough material to make you feel like you’ve got a backstage pass, the music is good, and it made me like Beyoncé even more than before. But the film is way too long; after an hour, it just drifts along until we finally get to the cute shots with the baby she had with her husband, Jay-Z.
Strangely, the film doesn’t bother to really show the trajectory of her career; the early gigs, the arc of disappointments to the big breaks; in fact, it begins with her growing up in a nice house and ends with her in a nice house.
Sure, she’s had some heartbreak, notably a miscarriage and a fraught relationship with her dad, and she has learned to be a tough businesswoman, but where’s the great story to tell here?
I suspect there really isn’t one. So, ultimately, Life Is But a Dream will do what most music bios do; it’ll satisfy the musician’s core fans and it’ll bore the rest of us.
What I wish this film could do is explain how a Beyoncé can exude such charisma with the wink of an eye. I want to know how she works it. We see a little bit of that, in the difficulty of putting on a production, but we never get behind the facade.
Still, I relish the ironies. There’s a scene in the film, in which Beyoncé is at Columbia, her record label, for the introduction of her new album. There must be about fifty people sitting around this vast table, listening to Beyoncé’s song, and the label reps are all bopping their heads to the music, along with the singer herself. From the outside, it’s the most ludicrous moment of pandering. You can’t escape the appearance that these sycophants are aping appreciation for their star. It’s icky, but the film doesn’t play it that way, rather framing it as a breakthrough moment in which Beyoncé gets the approval she craves. A biography that lacks self awareness is a troubled one, indeed.
Another irony was the premiere itself, being hosted at the grand Ziegfeld theater to an audience of more than a thousand. The film played best to a section of about 50 true fans in the back corner of the theater, who hooped and hollered at various moments. HBO was showing how Beyoncé plays to a large audience—but the documentary is going to be distributed to the rest of America on small screens.
The last irony happened back on the red carpet, when I spoke with the director, Ed Burke. He gave me all the sound bytes a red carpet reporter could hope for, about Beyoncé being a great collaborator, but when I asked him about his next project, he asked me to turn off the mic. We spoke, off the record, about what he hopes will be his next film, which he’ll propose doing with Beyoncé.
The idea is actually totally inspired; indicating awareness of the celebrity machine and the pop music complex in a way that reflects Burke is not just some celebrity whore sea monkey. And the fact that he wants to partner with Beyoncé, at least proposes that she’s not purely self-interested, which Life is But a Dream does little to dispel.