Another Cog in the Machinery of Divahood
By ALESSANDRA STANLEY
There are plenty of great performers who can be likened to Beyoncé, but Nina Simone isn’t one of them.
Diana Ross, Madonna and Whitney Houston all come to mind. Yet Simone, a pained chanteuse in exile with a cult following and only one Top 20 hit (“I Loves You, Porgy”), is the sole predecessor Beyoncé mentions in “Beyoncé: Life Is but a Dream,” an autobiographical documentary on HBO on Saturday night. Beyoncé is the star and also its executive producer, narrator, co-writer and co-director.
“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.
That’s just one instance in this gauzy, stylish and utterly opaque film that comes off less as an autobiography than a song-and-dance defense brief. There are no witnesses testifying on Beyoncé‘s behalf — she is almost the only person in the film who speaks more than a few words — nor is there any obvious reason someone as popular, recognized and financially rewarded as Beyoncé would feel misunderstood, yet the intent is clear.
This superstar has summoned all her formidable strength, charm and self-discipline to prove that she is, beneath it all, a fragile artist buffeted by the winds of fate and hyperfame.
She makes the point over and over, usually into the camera of her laptop, which she uses as a diary. “Stop pretending that I have it all together, and if I’m scared, be scared, allow it, release it, move on,” she tells herself. She adds softly, “I think I need to go listen to ‘Make Love to Me,’ go make love to my husband.” (That would be Jay-Z.)
Show business, like the weather, seems victim to climate change, and Beyoncé is an extreme diva, a megastorm of talent, drive, beauty and marketing. The film comes to television just as the tsunami of her performances at the presidential inauguration and the Super Bowl are ebbing, and just before the start of a world tour to promote her fifth solo album. The sun never sets on the Beyoncé empire: This pop star, whose face is on Pepsi cans, L’Oreal billboards and the covers of GQ, Vogue and Forbes, will also be interviewed by Oprah Winfrey on OWN on Saturday night.
The documentary may seem like just another publicity way station, but it is as telling about the current temperature of pop music as “Madonna: Truth or Dare” was about the late 1980s and early ’90s. Madonna perfected the art of brazen exhibitionism and arch defiance, turning her cheeky monomania into a manifesto of female empowerment. Beyoncé‘s self-portrait is also a declaration of independence, but sung in a more pleasing, feminine key, answering the critics rather than scorning them.
She opens with an elegiac look at her happy suburban childhood in Houston, then quickly gets to her domineering father, who is no longer her manager. She generously skips over his excesses and focuses on her own sadness, which led to a song about the breach between father and daughter, which she sings soulfully at the piano, alone in a darkened room.
She talks a lot about her creative process. “When I’m recording in the studio I want to close my eyes and feel,” she says. “I don’t want to hear your opinion. I don’t want to hear you say, ‘Well, maybe you should put more song structure.’ I don’t want to hear any of that. I’m truly an artist in the studio.”
The focus is on her music career, with almost no reflection on her movies, not even “Dreamgirls,” perhaps because Jennifer Hudson was the real star — and Oscar winner — of that one. There are brief flashbacks to Beyoncé’s early days, including her time with Destiny’s Child; longer, dazzling glimpses of Beyoncé in concert; and many scenes in which she is alone, talking into her computer and looking lovely and luminous without makeup.
No moment in her life seems to have gone unrecorded. In a recent GQ cover profile, the interviewer described at length the Beyoncé archive, a vast digital-storage room that contains almost every public and private image of her ever made.
The film doesn’t get to the hard backstage work and grueling physical training in her life until later. In hindsight the rehearsal she chose may inadvertently help explain why she sang along to her prerecorded vocal track of the national anthem at the inauguration last month.
In the documentary Beyoncé and her team were preparing for her appearance at the 2011 Billboard Music Awards to introduce a new album, something went wrong, and they were locked out of their rehearsal space, a setback that her team treats like an aborted NASA launching. (In one small and quite charming shot she practices a dance step in a hotel corridor.)
“Because we lost a day of rehearsals we never got a chance to do it right,” she says. But she did, triumphantly: “Billboard was a huge artistic gamble. But the urge to get my message out was so overwhelming, I didn’t even pay attention to the risk I was taking.”
In her pre-Super Bowl news conference to explain why she did not sing live at the inauguration, Beyoncé explained that she relied on a recording of her own voice because she didn’t have time to rehearse with the Marine Corps Band properly. The event, she pointed out, was about President Obama; she saved her rehearsal time for the Super Bowl halftime, which was pretty much all about Beyoncé.
She talks a lot about her love for Jay-Z and her joy over their daughter, Blue Ivy Carter, and doesn’t go into the fuss about the child’s birth in an “executive suite” at Lenox Hill Hospital, where a father complained that the celebrities’ security guards blocked him from visiting his own newborn.
She does speak quite a bit about her sorrow over her first pregnancy, which ended in a miscarriage, and plays part of a song
that loss inspired, which she calls “the saddest song I’ve ever written in my life.”
The program provides a lot of personal information, and Beyoncé addresses that too: “I always battle with: How much do I reveal about myself? How do I keep my humility? How do I keep my spirit and the reality? And how do I continue to be generous to — to my fans and to my craft? And how do I stay current? But how do I stay soulful? And it is the battle of my life. When I walk into a stage I’m able to come out of my shell and be as fabulous and over the top and strong and powerful as I want to be.”
“Beyoncé: Life Is but a Dream” is as contrived as “Madonna: Truth or Dare,” but probably for good reason it is neither daring nor entirely truthful. It’s an infomercial, not just about Beyoncé’s talent onstage but her authenticity behind the scenes. She is a people-pleasing diva and she wants to keep it that way.
This documentary doesn’t really convey what life as a celebrity is like, but it does say a lot about how this celebrity would like to be seen.
Beyoncé: Life Is but a Dream
HBO, Saturday night at 9, Eastern and Pacific times; 8, Central time.
Produced by Parkwood Entertainment. Directed by Beyoncé Knowles and Ed Burke; Ilan Benatar, co-director; written by Ms. Knowles, Mr. Benatar and Mr. Burke; Ms. Knowles, executive producer; Bill Kirstein, producer; Mr. Burke, cinematographer; Robert Hein, sound design; original music by Ben Salisbury; Mr. Benatar, editor; Lee Anne Callahan-Longo, co-producer.