Beyoncé’s self-produced, self-directed, and self-spangled documentary Life is But a Dream aired on HBO this past Saturday night. We brought together our resident Diva scientists Jay Caspian Kang and Rembert Browne to discuss.
Jay Caspian Kang: Before we get into specifics, how do you feel about the general idea of a self-produced, self-directed documentary?
The Internet has allowed us to all become mini-memoirists — Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and the rest have turned anyone with a smartphone into the director and producer of a non-linear, yet ultimately self-serving narrative. There’s no reason Beyoncé shouldn’t be given the same opportunity to tell her life story through a montage of flattering photos, baby photos, and motivational platitudes. And that’s what Life is But a Dream ultimately felt like to me — a sleek, well-curated series of status updates.
Rembert Browne: It’s almost an exercise in allowing Beyoncé to be as tacky as the rest of us. The documentary felt like her Tumblr had magically come to life in the form of 90 minutes of GIFs accompanied by well-filtered Instagram Vine Pinterest Etsy Snapchats.
Kang: Only one other way it could have happened.
Señor Spielbergo’s talents aside, I agree that Bey’s choice to have the movie feel like social media was the best choice. She already rules that space and probably understood that the majority of her stans experience their majority of their lives through some form of social media. Did you catch the part about 15 minutes into the film when Beyoncé said, “Thank god for my computer,” and confessed to recording self-therapy sessions on her MacBook? (Much of the film looks like what would happen if you took the Black and White function on Photo Booth and ran it through the Toaster filter on Instagram.)
Browne: I am thankful for these sessions, however, because they highlighted the hidden gem in this Film of Deréon: Beyoncé, the speaker. One of the points of this documentary existing (and the Oprah interview, MORE ON THAT TRAVESTY NEVER) was to make Beyoncé and the abnormal life she lives seem a little more “normal,” or at least relatable. Nothing conveyed this better than simply listening to Beyoncé talk. It’s so unrefined, so unscripted, so “I feel like...”
Being reminded with every spoken word that she can never fully escape Houston does wonders in the relatability index.
Kang: I enjoyed the Photo Booth parts, too. Not because I thought Bey was being “real,” but more because it was the first time I’ve seen Beyoncé describe the process of being Beyoncé. There’s a part about 40 minutes into the documentary where a visibly exhausted and Felicity-haired B gives notes to her production staff. Even this sort of mundane scene seemed strangely revelatory, mostly because we now assume that Beyoncé beams down onto the stage and stomps around like Mecha-Godzilla and all of Neo-Tokyo bows down in fear and admiration.
Strangely, it felt like a lot of the documentary was about alienation. Bey’s alienation from her father, her alienation from her childhood, her alienation from her own boundless ambition, and perhaps most importantly, her alienation from her own gargantuan celebrity. When discussing her rise to fame in 2001, Beyoncé bemoaned the rootless nature of our modern celebrity culture. “I think people are so brainwashed,” Bey explained, “You get up in the morning, you click on the computer, you see all these pictures and all you think about is the picture and the image every day. You don’t see the human form.”
She continued: “When Nina Simone put out music, you loved her voice. That’s what she wanted you to love. You didn’t get brainwashed by her day-to-day life and what her child was wearing and who she’s dating and all those things that aren’t your business. It shouldn’t influence the way you listen to the voice and the art. But it does.”
This is the closest I’ve ever come to identifying with the Queen (except for the two weeks in graduate school when I wore a House of Deréon hat because I got it for free from a friend who worked at a dance studio) — if there was any revelation in Life is But a Dream, it’s that Beyoncé spends all day on the Internet but doesn’t really feel all that great about it. (CELEBRITIES: THEY’RE JUST LIKE US!)
But I just don’t buy the whole argument that she exists outside of the whole celebrity-obsessed and ultimately lifeless culture on the Internet. Or even that she resists its ugliness while being enthralled by its power. No one celebrity has enjoyed such universal and unending gushing — Beyoncé’s life on the Internet isn’t so much a gallery of digitally reproduced images divorced from the human form (this notwithstanding), as much as it is a litany of “ZOMFG BEYONCE” tweets.
Browne: We do have to remember, however, that Beyoncé + Internet is a very new thing, in the 1998–present timeline that is Beyoncé's stardom. Up until the high-profile marriage and the secretive kid, all Beyoncé seemingly did was go to work. She reached that "universal and unending gushing" level not because she had a way of not screwing up when the cameras were on, but because the Knowles camp found a way to convince all of us that Beyoncé truly didn't care about all the nonsense that we at the magazine stands, and increasingly, on the Internet were wholly concerned over. And even though we knew it was all a lie, holding out for so many years was admirable.
The Internet peanut gallery is founded on celebrities and their dealings when they're off the clock. Because that's when they start tweeting nonsense. Or wearing inadvisable things. Or hanging out with friends who were put on this earth to get them in trouble. Or speaking without a script or talking points. Or, simply, being themselves.
But for years, Beyoncé wouldn't play this game with us.
Yes, the Twitter and the Tumblr and the Instagram have shown a slightly more human side to her, but in watching this documentary, especially in some of its oddest, "why did they film it like that" moments, you have to remember this is 15 years of publicly repressed Beyoncé smushed into 90 minutes. That's ages 16–31, the formative years. All coming out at once. Of course the end result is kind of messy.
Understanding the Internet and being self-aware enough to know how satiated we've become at her every move, Beyoncé doing this documentary probably seemed like a no-brainer. The logical next step in her domination of yet another medium. But, while easy to focus on those motives, I do believe somewhere in there, beyond testing her stardom and dispelling rumors and clearing her name, she also needed this for herself.
This doc is angsty Beyoncé's form of rebellion. This is her Britney-shaving-head moment, but at age 31. And her hair still looks perfect.
Kang: You know who’s weirdly good at the “you’ll see me all the time, but you’ll never see me” game? Ke$ha. She’s given herself license to do whatever she wants on stage (if she squatted on the 50-yard line and shat a glitter rainbow at the $uper Bowl, would anyone really blink?), but I don’t know anything about her personal life and can’t remember reading any particularly interesting gossip about her … And I read ONTD all the time.
At some point when everyone was rushing to spray their essence out into the furthest reaches of social media, Beyoncé understood that the Internet is a needy beast, who, like all needy beasts, falls madly in love with anyone one who has the good sense to ignore it. She has tweeted four times in her life. She rarely updates her Tumblr. For years, she gave us nothing except top-notch videos and corporate singing. There was a time when you could have told me that Beyoncé was living in sin with Anne Heche, 12 tigers, and Rocky Dennis from Mask and I would have believed it.
The secrecy has finally been breached, especially with all the Surrogate Truther talk. More than anything, I think that’s what convinced her to put out this documentary — Life is But a Dream is a sacrificial lamb; fodder for the zealots. “Here, take these 50 shots of me cursing without makeup on and be appeased!”
Browne: KANG. THE CURSING.
It was everything. My reaction to hearing Beyoncé say "shit" multiple times is reminiscent, as so many things are, to a monologue from The Original Kings of Comedy when Steve Harvey describes his younger self discovering that an old lady at the church cursed like a sailor. And ever since that discovery, all he wanted to do was go to church and get within earshot.
I no longer care about Beyoncé's music. Now, all I want is to be within earshot when Beyoncé gets frustrated (or even HAPPY?) and starts letting the expletives fly. And it was the context in which she'd do it that made it startling and special.
Kang: We’re in agreement over one thing — the best part of the documentary came when Bey said, “I’m an artist and I’m sensitive about my shit.” For those who can’t recall the ankh-heavy era of the late ’90s, Bey’s quoting Erykah Badu’s intro to “Tyrone,” which, in addition to being a great, GREAT song, also showed up in “A Life in the Day of Benjamin Andre” — that song wasn’t about me and that ain’t my name.
Browne: Let it be known it should come as no surprise that a 31-year-old adult, wife, mother, and superstar curses from time to time. But still, because of the relationship she’s almost forced the rest of us to have with her; in which we assume she sleeps in an anti-aging chamber until it's time to perform, at which point the switch surgically implanted into her dookie braid is turned on, causing her to throw on seven-inch heels and uplift women with empowering lyrics and African dance; you almost forget she’s capable of such a callous, uncalculated move like getting ticked off and cursing. OR IS IT CALCULATED?
Kang: Trenchant Beytheists might say that this was all some ploy to make her more relatable and that if you’re going to curse for the first time, you might as well hide behind Badu’s headwrap (we’ve all tried this tactic, no? When I was in high school, I tried to figure out a way to dress like Erykah Badu, but you know, as a dude. I got as far as buying some incense at the local head shop before I gave up and put on an Ecko hoodie and a pair of bootlegged suede Timberlands my mom brought back from a shopping trip to Washington, D.C.), but I still felt the slightest shock when that word came out of her mouth. Which, I guess, more than anything, shows just how well Beyoncé has protected her image in this past decade. She might gyrate and writhe on stage, get married and give birth (allegedly; more on that later), but she never fully separates herself from her sweet, church-girl-from-Houston persona.
Speaking of marriage, what did you think of the scenes with Jay-Z? If we don’t talk about the scene where they’re singing “Yellow” in what I’m pretty sure was that bar on Atlantic in Cobble Hill that serves bone marrow–on–toast and has an asshole bartender who yelled at me once for tracking snow inside, this whole exchange was for naught.
Browne: Being in the camp that believes they're actually in love, while constantly needing public reassurance that I'm not just being naďve, this scene was everything to me.
Kang: You know, it was an oddly candid romantic moment. They both looked exhausted and slightly drunk, and for some reason, watching them stumble through a Coldplay song brought back some version of New York that I’ve long since forgotten, where you’re in a bar late at night and you don’t feel like getting back on the A train all the way back to 207th Street and so you decide to just sit there with an old friend and sing cheesy songs on the jukebox till one of you decides to just pay the cab fare back home.
That being said, I cringed at every single one of the yacht scenes in which Bey extolled the greatness of being alive and being in love. Those felt canned and poorly staged, but then again, I spent a good portion of my 20s in graduate school for creative writing (bahahaa) and in poker rooms, so my context for how people act when they’re in love might be a bit skewed. I’m pretty sure, though, that people don’t whisper, “Life is but a dream” and then dive off a boat into a lagoon. Or, if they do, I’m flying to Korea and walking north across the DMV, because love is dead.
Did I just spend two paragraphs talking about myself?
Browne: Well, we're publishing two. No one needs an additional four paragraphs on the time you brought the house down with that same Jon B song, over and over again. Let's talk about someone near and dear to both of our hearts: little Beyoncé.
Kang: This is an old Facebook trick: When you’re feeling terrible and you’ve insulted all your extended family and spent the better portion of three days cyber-stalking people you hated in high school, throw up a photo of yourself as a kid as your profile pic. Nothing humanizes someone as quickly as a glimpse into their childhood.
Bey has quite a few videos of herself as a kid on YouTube, most notably this one:
But we’ve never really seen anything but performances and we certainly never saw the house she grew up in or the bees that had nested in the bush by her front door or Baby Solange.
Browne: THOSE BEES.
Kang: Again, Bey seems to have taken all her directorial and self-mythological cues from social media. I’m still fixated on how often she brought up the strangeness of images in the Internet age and how our lives have become increasingly representational. Why does it really matter if we see Beyoncé as a kid? And why does it still humanize her in a way that the rest of the film cannot?
One film I kept thinking about while watching Life is But a Dream was Some Kind of Monster, the fantastic 2005 documentary about Metallica. That film would have been fundamentally changed if the filmmakers had decided to put in some biographical boilerplate with photos of Lars Ulrich, James Hetfield, Dave Mustaine, and Kirk Hammet as young kids. Instead, you just got the occasional insert of Metallica at its inception. That’s cute and all, but it still assumes all the greatness that’s still to come. Because Some Kind of Monster wasn’t a humanizing project (at least not as explicity and as literally as Life is But a Dream), the choice to leave these photos out was appropriate.
If Beyoncé’s aim was to simply show people that she was “normal,” as you pointed out, the images of child Beyoncé did all the work (along with the cursing, as discussed). I think she could have actually used more of them and cut out some of the performances.
Browne: I loved the kid videos, further proof to me that some parents know these might come in handy some day (Papa Knowles) while others take the “let’s just stick with pictures, because you can’t hang a VHS full of nothing on the wall” route (Mama Browne). But one of the reasons they worked so well was that they were framed by another family moment from the present day: the extended Knowles family seated around a kitchen table, sifting through old photos.
Of everything that took place in the film, all the attempted and successful humanizing that occurred, this scene was the one that left me thinking, "yes, this is familiar": The image of Beyoncé walking around the table with a baby, while others go through photos, asking who's who, and one person, the unofficial family historian, always knowing "oh that's cousin _____, you know, from _______, _______'s son."
This unassuming yet powerful scene made the whole film worthwhile. And the one that reminds the viewer yes, this is about Beyoncé, but this is also the story of the Knowles, a star-studded but still traditional family, living their own thoroughly 21st century but ultimately old school American tale
This documentary wasn't high art. I'm not even sure it was art. But it was a glimpse into that life, and that's really all I needed from her.