I watched “Beyoncé: Life Is But a Dream” hoping that the HBO documentary, executive produced and codirected by Beyoncé Knowles, would help me feel her brilliance and her relevance. I’ve just never quite understood Beyoncé fever. She is lovely, obviously, and she presents one of the sweetest — and not fake sweet — personalities in pop culture. She can also sing up a storm, with a shrieky bellow that’s not for everyone — and not for me — but that is instantly recognizable.
But does Beyoncé have a charisma, a raw magnetism, that I’ve been missing all along, the kind of ineffable quality that is the difference between a hyped chart-topper and a cultural lightning rod? I haven’t been able to find any depth in Beyoncé’s voice or in her persona, and I haven’t detected anything groundbreaking in her songs or in her dance moves, flawlessly executed as they are. After her recent Super Bowl performance, Gawker declared that “Beyoncé Knowles Is the King of Pop,” with gushy morning-after glee and without irony. Really? I’ve never been able to make that leap, of seeing Beyoncé not as just a radio and awards-show regular but as some kind of trailblazing icon in the vein of Michael Jackson.
Beyoncé has generally seemed to me to be a very hard worker, and a perfectionist, who, with a lot of sleek costuming, expert choreography, and exciting lighting can put on a flashy stage event. I’ve admired her quality control, clearly the result of years — maybe even a lifetime — of caution and focus. But there has been nothing I’ve seen that ranks her with, say, Whitney Houston, or even Adele, never mind Michael Jackson; she strikes me more as a well-packaged pop phenomenon who, through grit and effort and a high-profile marriage to Jay-Z, has triumphed where the likes of Britney Spears have lost their way.
The documentary, which premieres Saturday night at 9, did not bring me there. It’s an oddly unnecessary piece of work, a vanity production from top to bottom with very little that feels genuinely candid. It’s heavily self-promotional, with clips of eye-popping stage performances and light shows to call attention to Beyoncé’s stagecraft. It’s grandiose, with sequences of fan obsession to remind us of Beyoncé’s popularity. And it’s falsely modest and braggy. “This baby has made me love him more than I ever thought I could love another human being,” she says about her marriage to Jay-Z, while we see the two singing along with Coldplay’s “Yellow” in a restaurant.
Her voice-overs and interviews are filled with the kind of famous-person pabulum that comes off as disingenuous. “People see celebrities and they seem like their life is great and they have money and fame and fans and its almost like you can’t touch them,” Beyoncé says at one point in a voice-over, as we see fans race at her limousine. “But I’m a human being, I cry, I’m extremely sensitive, and my feelings get hurt and I get scared and I get nervous just like everyone else.” Really, comments about being in the public eye don’t get much staler and flatter than that.
Like reality shows built around famous people, “Beyoncé” strains to add a touch of drama to all the pedestal polishing. We see her video blog entries when she is exhausted, or when she is stressed about ending her work relationship with her father, who, she says, withheld his approval to make her work harder. “I feel like my soul has been tarnished,” she says about their relationship. We hear briefly about her miscarriage. But there’s nothing here that fills out her back story or adds poignancy to her endless successes. None of these serious moments carry through the movie, either, although Beyoncé does indicate toward the end that she forgives her father now that she understands what being a parent is about. It feels as though she’s unwilling to let anything “controversial” linger in the air. About having a baby, she says, against tinkling piano, “I felt like God was giving me a chance to assist in a miracle.”
Some of the attempts at drama revolve around her preparations for the Billboard Awards and the MTV Awards. Her people rush around the rehearsals with self-important swagger, as if they’re staging a United Nations event where world peace is at stake. She worries about how to combine her pregnancy with her performances. And yet, thanks to some odd timing by HBO, “Beyoncé” doesn’t feature the Inauguration or the Super Bowl, which have to be bigger landmarks in her career than some random awards show.
Ultimately, the movie is an ad for greatness, rather than an extension of it.