We’ve Never Seen Beyoncé Like This Before

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Written By Pinang Driod

Confession: The Beyoncé concert I attended this past summer was pretty good but not, as Oprah described it, “the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever seen.” Naturally, the expectations are high for any show by the most spectacular artist of my lifetime. Beyoncé’s previous solo arena tour, in 2016, made for a peak concertgoing experience: Even from the nosebleeds, she seemed huge, and impossibly important. I felt like I was watching the Statue of Liberty come alive, declare herself empress of Earth, and twerk.

Sitting in equally remote seats to see her in New Jersey this past July, I squinted to make out the action. Beyoncé seemed like just another body on a stage of performers and gadgets. The best part of the set list was its middle section, a megamix of bangers that made everyone watching it wiggle so freely that my eye couldn’t help but wander from the performance to the people around me. The party vibe was great fun, but I did not leave the show with the classic Beyoncé feeling of having one’s skull crushed by a higher power.

Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé now explains what happened. It pulls viewers close—not just into the front row or onto the stage itself, but also behind the scenes. The camera shows Beyoncé’s warm charisma, her unique physical intelligence, and a gala’s worth of splendid bodysuits. Plenty of moments will make the viewer feel, to use the lingo of the ballroom subculture that inspired Renaissance, her latest album, gagged by opulence. Yet the film also suggests that, a quarter century into her career, Beyoncé has begun to make trade-offs: She wants her brand to be less about … herself.

Five years ago, she set a new bar for concert documentaries with Homecoming, about her 2018 Coachella performance, which essentially created a human pyramid with one woman at the apex. Though the staging celebrated the range of talents found at Black collegiate pep rallies, it altogether had a militant, astonishing unity. Intercut with backstage footage, the movie presented itself as the culmination of her career to date. “I definitely pushed myself further than I knew I could,” Beyoncé said in voice-over. “And I’ve learned a very valuable lesson: I will never, never push myself that far again.”

The title of Renaissance announced a new era—one in which she’s still pushing herself, but in different ways. Borrowing the Homecoming format, the new movie weaves together performance and backstory to illuminate the effort required to mount an arena show. Beyoncé paid a physical toll, undergoing knee surgery shortly before the first date. She also had to play a mental game; even at her level of achievement, she notes in the documentary that she felt continually second-guessed because she’s a Black woman. In one instant-classic bit of footage, an adviser tells her that a piece of equipment she wants to use just doesn’t exist. She tells him that it actually does, and she knows so because she looked it up.

And yet, a remarkable amount of the movie highlights people who aren’t Beyoncé. One early segment zooms in on her laborers and crew, including the woman who pushed an oversize disco ball onstage every night. Viewers get a download about Kevin JZ Prodigy, whose furious spoken word rang out every night on tour, and Crystal Rovél Torres, the trumpet player who performed while pregnant. The film also spends time with Blue Ivy Carter, Beyoncé’s 11-year-old daughter, who joined her mom to dance on multiple tour dates. The star didn’t want her kid to be in the spotlight so young, but Blue Ivy insisted, put in the work, and became better and more confident with each show.

In the musical segments, Beyoncé shares focus as well. Her dancers zip and twirl in ways that break with phalanxlike choreo clichés. The camera often cuts to fans, bedecked in shiny accessories and pulling their own moves. At one point, Beyonce’s mother, Tina Knowles, says the fans remind her of Beyoncé’s uncle Jonny, the inspiration for Renaissance’s mélange of Black, gay party sounds. At another point, Beyoncé—after discussing the fleeting nature of time—says that her present dream is to be for a new generation of talent what Tina Turner was for her. The statement is layered with heaviness, given Turner’s recent death and how she essentially retired from public view in the last decades of her life. Beyoncé is only 42, but she is explicitly thinking about, and preparing others for, a world without her.

Great pop stars always gesture to a communal ideal—fans as family, dancing as democracy. At base, though, they sell dominance and submission: a fantasy of the world’s problems pacified by a noble tyrant. To a fascinating extent, and with convincing earnestness, Beyoncé is trying something different: pulling back and broadening out while still offering a product that’s fierce and flashy. As art, that goal is inspiring, and builds upon the Black feminism that has long been explicit in her work. But she’s also complicating her audience’s experience. Like its concert, the Renaissance movie is fabulous yet uneven, with the energy peaking and ebbing erratically, its glorious polyphony sometimes becoming a muddle.

Of course, Beyoncé is hardly surrendering her claim to power and control. As the movie’s credits play, so does a tremendous new song in which she raps, with boxerly aggressiveness, about house—the musical style, the material achievement, the place to host guests and raise families. Implicitly, she’s inviting us all inside her walls. And yet, she very amusingly keeps shouting, “Get the fuck up out my house!” She knows we still want to be commanded—and that not everything she’s got can be shared.

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