Right up front, one of the problems with Beyonce’s HBO documentary “Life is but a Dream” is that it’s called a documentary. Because no matter how compelling a public figure and glam superstar you are, talking close into your MacBook with your-unmade-up (but still flawless) face does not a documentary make.
Granted, the former Ms. Fierce produced and co-directed the film, so it’s not as if we were set up for a Ken Burns special. (Although both docu-makers have sported bangs, at times.)
Still, Beyonce is beautiful, talented, and one of the most powerful people in the biz -- a natural subject. But if you watch this 90-minute film because you actually are interested in how that happened -- stuff like where Beyonce was born, how she got along in school and with her siblings, whether she studied music, where she got her big break, how she met Jay-Z, what informs her musical tastes etc. -- you’re out of luck. I guess that’s what Wikipedia is for.
Certainly, “Life” looks beautiful, with its mix of gorgeous saturated film and gauzy, bleached-out video. There are tantalizing wisps of things -- we do get to see home movies (and present-day shots) of the outside of the magnificent house she grew up in. She never mentions that it’s in Houston, or what her dad, Matthew Knowles (he’s never named) did in the days before she became famous and he became her manager.
The singer-dancer-actress-producer-co-director and star also acts as narrator. “My life is a journey. It seems like I set a goal and I accomplish it,” she says. As with much of the voicover, that sounds as if it ought to be profound. But it mostly comes out as very carefully thought-out doubletalk. “We have to shape our own perception of how we view ourselves,” she says, for example.
That’s actually more telling than she may know, since she’s using this platform to shape perception of how we view her. So we gets lots of footage of helicopters whirring and taking off, and the rush of people and cameras once she lands, and the crowd mesmerized by her stunning performances.
But there really is no arc here, just dreamy passages floating non-chronologically through the past three or four years of her life, when, like the characters on “The Office,” she apparently had film crews covering her 24/7.
The most annoying part is when she presents as her personal Cuban Missile Crisis the time she and her troupe were locked out of the studio and missed a full day of rehearsal for the Billboard Music Awards. It was a “huge artistic gamble” to go on after that, she says in the voiceover, but the “urge to get my message out” allowed her to overcome her fear and perform it live.
The name "Destiny’s Child” is never mentioned, nor are the super-quadruple platinum songs she recorded with that group. But she definitely has daddy issues. What’s implied is that her competitive edge comes from her father -- that whatever she did to please him growing up was not enough.
And she’s obviously hurt about all the crazy rumors that she faked her pregnancy and used a surrogate. She also provides a Demi Moore-ish shot (remember that old cover of Vanity Fair) of her subsequent pregnancy belly as a response to the haters. (Doesn’t matter -- some have already voiced their suspicions that the headless shot of the belly bump is not in fact her body.)
Though she does come clean about something very personal -- a miscarriage -- she also reveals a poignant lack of historical understanding when she mentions that people like Nina Simone didn’t have these problems. “You loved her voice,” she says. “You didn’t get brainwashed by her everyday life. It’s not your business what her child wore.”
Well, in fact, Nina Simone was very outspoken during the civil rights movement, and had to end up living in Europe for many complicated reasons.
And I guess I agree that what her baby is wearing is not my business. I would have preferred less about the lost pregnancy (I can understand why she would want that to remain private) and more about how Beyonce is “always thinking about women.”
Yes, her songs can be seen as a battle cry for girl power. Still, I wish that someone had asked her on-camera about the differences between sexiness and objectification. Take “Put a Ring on It.” The rhythms are hypnotic. But what would she say to people who are uncomfortable, for their own daughters’ sense of self-worth, about using the word “it”?
Her Super Bowl act was all women; all of the dancers, singers, musicians, even the orchestra, was female. That’s a powerful statement, Still, some of the audience was put off by her costume, and what they saw as her characteristic thrusting pole-dance moves.
In fact, the costume designer had roots in the Bolshoi Ballet, and as Bey mentioned many years back on Oprah, her moves come out of African dance. Talking to the costume designer, or showing any historical video of women in Africa dancing, would have been so enlightening. Any sort of historical perspective outside of Beyonce's free-range philosophy would have been welcome.
But this is less a historical piece than a piece of gloss, about as deep as a gel manicure -- and equally as shiny and polished.
Not surprisingly, however, the postscript is that “Life is But a Dream” drew 1.8 million viewers, making it the most-watched HBO documentary since the first part of the 2006 Spike Lee documentary about Hurricane Katrina, “When the Levees Broke,” according to HBO.
It really should get some kind of new classification, though, that separates it from the D word. Because with “Life is But a Dream,” B has invented a new media form: the narcissisi-mentary.