Like any good reverie, there are plenty of different ways to interpret Life Is But A Dream, the fascinating and rudderless new HBO documentary that aired tonight about Beyoncé that just so happens to be directed by Beyoncé, starring Beyoncé, with special promotional consideration provided by Beyoncé, made possible by contributions from Viewers Like Beyoncé.
On one hand, the movie could be exactly what it says it is: a verité video-quilt stitched from snippets of the private life of America’s current First Performer. Here she is as a kid in cowboy boots running around her Texas yard; now she’s the megastar slithering onstage in a metallic leotard to accept Billboard’s Millennium Award; now she’s in sweats whispering to the camera about a miscarriage that she calls “the saddest thing I’ve ever been through.” All of this, by the way, was recorded on the fly by the swarms of cameras that apparently surround Beyoncé at all times, supplemented by TV footage and straight-up, first-person vlog entries so raw and immediate that she barely had time to slap on some eyeliner and light foundation before grabbing her laptop.
Or you could take the cynic’s view say that the whole thing is a sham, just a televised press release designed to provide the same kind of rigidly distanced intimacy that we get from the snapshots on Beyoncé’s immaculately curated Instagram feed. There are just too many nagging questions: Who is the faceless looks-like-a-reporter guy asking Beyoncé softball questions about her life? Why is Jay-Z, her husband and #1 fan, barely around? Why don’t we ever see her —even in bed in the middle of the night — without beautiful, flowing, perfectly styled hair? How did she get footage from a security camera in an elevator for a pointless over-the-shoulder shot of her talking into her computer? (The movie uses so many multimedia video sources that it looks a little like a Beyoncified version of Chronicle).
Of course, the truth is probably somewhere in between — a delicate mix of the calculated and confessional, designed to let us just far enough into Knowles’ world to keep us interested in her next tour, album, soda allegiance, etc. And no amount of skepticism can match the electric rush of watching such a gifted, top-of-her-game performer put her talent to work, whether onstage in one of her full-sensory blitzkriegs, or even better, not. She’s a human pyrotechnic, more blinding when there aren’t any flashy costumes, makeup, music, or lighting to distract from her, like when she growls through a full-throat-throttle version of “I Care” in the studio, or practices the dizzying runs of “Listen” in her car, or blocks out precision dance moves for her “Run the World (Girls)” video in a hotel hallway. Those moments don’t just silence your inner critic (the same one who quibbled about the National Anthem); they leave him/her groveling for forgiveness. Because we can all choose how we want to read Life Is But A Dream once it’s over. But as long we’re in Beyoncé’s world, there’s no question who’s running it.
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