Photo by Jen Keys.
Photo by Jen Keys.

It is difficult to call the new HBO film “Beyoncé: Life Is But a Dream”—which debuted February 15—a documentary.  More than anything, it comes across as self-promotion instead of an objective or illuminating take on its subject’s life.  Beyoncé is not only the star of the production; she also holds the roles of director, producer, writer, and even camerawoman.  The film uses footage from her MacBook Photo Booth “diary,” where she is supposedly confessing to us aspects of her soul previously hidden from the public.

Notorious for being secretive about her personal life—and for giving a bad interview—Beyoncé does not reveal much beyond platitudes and glossy, generalized emotional statements in these scenes, which often seem scripted in spite of their grainy visuals.  Her statements about the music business (“It’s a tough time for the music industry”) or the culture of celebrity on the internet (“All you see is a picture, you don’t see the human form”) are as banal as her statements about her personal life.  She says little about her pregnancy beyond it having been “amazing!” and the tragedy of her miscarriage is addressed only briefly.

All non-selfie footage is courtesy of Beyoncé’s personal “visual director,” whom, weirdly, she has employed since 2005 to record her every waking moment.  For some of these scenes, she sits on a couch at home, where she seems to be interviewing herself.  There is no voice—or face, really for that matter—in the film besides that of Beyoncé, save for a few scenes where Jay-Z lurks in the shadows, quietly supportive.  No one asks her any questions, which creates a sense that she really is telling us only what she wants us to hear.

There has been no question in the media or among fans as to Beyoncé’s talent or her success.  There have, however, been many questions about her private life—and even a few conspiracies about her lying to the public—which this film’s marketing suggested it would respond to. However, the faux-confessional quality of the whole production makes it seem that Beyoncé is trying to assuage the public, without actually revealing anything we couldn’t have guessed.

The film tiptoes into the intriguing, potentially heart-wrenching topics of Beyoncé’s miscarriage and the dissolution of her relationship with her father-turned-manager.  But it only obfuscates, never illuminates.  Her humanity is only referred to, not made believable. The movie does not make an honest attempt to reveal anything—it only feigns to do so in its very advertisement of itself as a Beyoncé documentary and its quick forays into (and out of) more difficult topics.

Beyoncé in the film also makes a point to address ideas of feminism and her role within it.  When looking at Beyoncé and her unbelievable successes as a black female, it is easy to call her a wonderful role model.  And she wants to reinforce this idea of herself, preaching empowerment for women in the film often and featuring her song, “Run the World (Girls)” heavily.

Beyoncé’s feminism, however, is pop-ified and hollow.  More than a role model, Beyoncé is a sex symbol.  For over half the film she is wearing scanty glammed-out leotards on stage (though she does well to balance these sexier moments with ones where she is made-under in a seemingly flawless “natural” style).

Beyoncé expresses her sexuality freely on stage, and this can be empowering.  However, the message of her lyrics, as well as some of her lines in the film, is not of sexual but financial empowerment.  In “Run the World (Girls),” she sings: “This goes out to all my girls / That’s in the club rocking the latest / Who will buy it for themselves and get more money later.”

Beyoncé wants women to know that they have the ability to have an independent career and have a family.  Later, in “Run the World (Girls),” she sings: “Boy you know you love it / How we’re smart enough to make these millions / Strong enough to bear the children / Then get back business.”  Beyoncé can make a lot of money, have a kid, and then make a lot more money all she wants, but reinforcing the idea that being able to independently afford the over-sexualized outfits she wears onstage will bring me gender equality is shallow and trapped within a media system that itself presents a skewed female ideal.  And telling me that I should want to make millions and have kids because doing so will make me more desirable to a man, and that I should want a man to desire me in the first place is offensive in its traditionalism, and a problematic way to empower women.

This song might be not as dangerous if it were confessional (and in it she is quite obviously promoting her own way of life), but it’s a song to and for all the girls in the world.  And the song’s music video, as well as the grandiose concert performance of it that makes up the film’s climax, is frightening.  They show Beyoncé’s goal for women, an eerie prophecy of the future of feminism she prescribes, in the form of an army of similarly-dressed females dancing in perfect unison with their celebrity icon.

Beyoncé’s feminist rhetoric in the film is hypocritical at points.  She tells us that she does not let men dictate what she does or define her, but later we hear her swoon over her man Jay-Z, and say how he defines her as person.

This is all not to say that the film lacks entertainment value.  It is enjoyable to watch in the same ways that her music videos and concert performances are enjoyable.  And in fact, majority of the film’s footage is of her performing.  The concert scenes are chill-inducing and nearly make the film worth watching.  However, these scenes—as well as the scenes of her in the recording studio—do not reveal much about her as an artist.  The film would have been much better as a concert movie.  In the context of the documentary, though, the singing scenes merely act as reminders of just how unbelievably talented Beyoncé is, which is, yet again, another thing we already know.

In fact, the title of the film itself is a lie: life is not “but a dream.” It is life.  The movie lies in the same way Beyoncé does:  it ignores hard-to-deal-with topics, and favors a sugar-coated view of an individual.  Beyoncé’s life is not perfection, but even when she shows us her humanity, she packages them with a perfectionist mentality that she cannot escape.

Her film is not a documentary in the sense that it provides a factually illuminating report.  By keeping in mind the fact that Beyoncé made the film, and by examining its formal choices and motives of self-promotion, we can understand it as a documentary of the music icon’s psyche.  The film documents the hyper-controlled thought processes and motivations of a person for whom the world and the people in it are an audience and nothing more.  Whether she is narcissistic, hoping that this movie will cement her perfect persona, or both, “Life Is But a Dream” inadvertently reveals Beyoncé’s incredible self-control and perhaps even some deep need within her to please people—though that’s not what she wants us to see.