Beyoncé the auteur takes center stage in 'Renaissance'
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Beyoncé the auteur takes center stage in 'Renaissance'
A fan at the premiere of “Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé,” at a Regal theater in Houston on Nov. 30, 2023. Fans in silver hats, pants and boots flooded movie theaters on Thursday night as they came to see Houston’s own Beyoncé on the silver screen. (Annie Mulligan/The New York Times)

by Salamishah Tillet

NEW YORK, NY.- “I’m excited for people to see the show,” Beyoncé says early in “Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé,” based on her recent world tour and seventh studio album. “But I’m really excited for everyone to see the process.”

I’ve long wanted to understand her process better, too, especially because she has taken to rarely giving interviews. Instead, she has let her art speak for itself, a risky venture when critics do the interpreting without her input. My interest in her approach is partly scholarly. I regularly teach courses on her and want my students to learn from her observations. But my enthusiasm is also speculative. I often wonder whether our ignorance of her creative practice has minimized and denied her innovation, ingenuity and individual contributions to her own body of work.

If “Renaissance” was only a film about her beaming audience, dazzling performances and the making of the tour, that would be more than enough. However, it’s clear early on that Beyoncé is not entirely interested in fetishizing her “process” to validate her artistry. Instead, the movie deconstructs its subject to expand our understanding of her. More poignantly, it critiques how race, gender and genre have limited our ability to see her talent and, by doing so, liberates her from ever again having to prove her singular impact on American culture.

It does so by quickly establishing her creative control. The concert itself reveled in Beyoncé’s simultaneous mastery of dance, music, fashion and live performance, which makes her unparalleled among artists today. On the other hand, the film shows her working backstage and sometimes even underneath it. As the tour director, executive producer and creative director, she oversaw everything from hiring and salaries to musical selections, marketing, choreography, costumes and video.

But what makes “Renaissance” unique among other great concert films is that she did not just star in it the way the Talking Heads did in Jonathan Demme’s classic “Stop Making Sense” or Madonna in Alek Keshishian’s provocative “Truth or Dare.” Beyoncé also wrote, directed and produced the film. In fact, she has created some of the past decade’s most memorable cinematic musical experiences and should be considered an auteur — in terms of both this film and her career.

In this way, “Renaissance” is the culmination of her film projects, beginning with the visual albums “Beyoncé” (2013) and “Lemonade” (2016); her intimate documentary “Life Is but a Dream” (2013); the 2019 Coachella concert film “Homecoming”; and “Black Is King” (2020), the visual companion she and Blitz Bazawule made for the soundtrack “The Lion King: The Gift.” But by offering the most in-depth document of her vision, preparation and personal sacrifice, the new film goes further than these productions.

The film opens with Beyoncé commanding our attention first in a black gauzy dress and then in a citron yellow one, her hair blowing as she belts “Dangerously in Love 2.” She later revisits that moment through a flashback showing her at work with her production team. Via voice-overs and close-ups of her in far more casual clothing, we watch as she gives her team notes about camera angles, lighting and the speed and direction of the mechanical fans. If only we could rewind to that first performance to better appreciate all the technical components that went into making that moment appear so flawless.

In another scene in which the entire sound system cuts out as she sings “Alien Superstar” in Glendale, Arizona, the tension really mounts. She and her dancers leave the stage immediately. That’s all the live audience knows. But as a film director, she has the cameras follow her backstage to capture her audio team’s update (“It will be back on in three minutes”). Within that short period, she convinces the wardrobe department she has enough time for a quick costume change, then, in a new outfit, meets with her head of music production to test a new transition to the next song. It is an exhilarating sequence that makes her seamless comeback to the stage even more admirable and shows her remarkable sense of timing and tension as a storyteller and filmmaker.

These moments pose the question of why it took her so long to exhibit such a thrilling illustration of her leadership. And then I realized: We were the problem; we just hadn’t listened to her.

Beyoncé has spent most of her career telling us she was in charge. As far back as 2004, “Beyoncé: Live at Wembley,” a concert film about her first solo tour, featured the artist at 22 as well as its creative director, Kim Burse, and choreographer, Frank Gatson, discussing how the headliner had helped conceive the show and chose its costumes, songs and choreography. Subsequent documentaries like the short “Beyoncé: Year of 4” and “Life Is but a Dream” focused even more intensely on her artistic independence after she split from her father and longtime manager, Mathew Knowles, and started her own company, Parkwood, to manage herself.

She returned to this theme of independence again in “Homecoming,” when, cinéma vérité-style, she shares the inspiration she found in the Battle of the Bands of historically Black colleges and universities; her use of three different soundstages to rehearse with the band, the dancers and her production team; and her intricate collaboration with Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing to design more than 200 outfits for the show. “In the rehearsals, I am directing and watching the show,” she says in “Homecoming” and notes, “I’m in the audience, and I’m able to be on the stage and kind of see the stage at the same time.”

In “Homecoming,” she points out how her team tried to ignore her directives in the lead-up to Coachella. At one point, she expresses her frustration to a film crew that isn’t listening to her when she describes what it will take to translate the energetic performances from the stage to the screen. “Until I see some of my notes applied,” an exasperated Beyoncé warns, “it doesn’t make sense for me to make more.”

But in “Renaissance,” she explains her crew’s dismissiveness. “Communicating as a Black woman, everything is a fight,” she says, then adds, “I constantly have to repeat myself.” In back-to-back scenes, she shows what that looks like when she tries to buy two separate cameras to film her show. A team member informs her that one camera is unavailable, only to eventually admit that he can find it after she doubts him. In the next scene, she readies herself for the pushback. When someone else tells her the other camera does not exist, she reveals she has already found it online, so it just needs to be purchased. While this exchange is humorous, it is not minor. It is the frequency that makes the second-guessing larger than life and, unfortunately, far too relatable, especially for many Black women in positions of authority.

Management is one challenge; motherhood is far more demanding. The film pivots to Beyoncé’s ambivalence in allowing her older daughter, Blue Ivy, to perform with her on tour, only for Beyoncé to witness her growth as a young artist. And when we watch Beyoncé thank her mother, Tina Knowles, for protecting her from the more vicious aspects of the music industry, we realize not only that Mama Tina is her maternal template but also that Beyoncé herself considers her three children, including the twins, Rumi and Sir, fuel for her creative process rather than fully outside of it.

After these exchanges, “Renaissance” opens up more and allows its star to reject the idea of solitary genius. Through archival footage, photographs and shots of dancers onstage, Beyoncé showcases the Black queer ballroom culture that inspired her album and concert choreography. She also pays homage to iconic Black women like Diana Ross and Tina Turner, who influenced her career, and to her hometown, Houston, where she was a founding member of the girl group Destiny’s Child. By exploring her indebtedness to a people and place, she confidently embraces her own contributions alongside those of her community and her collaborators. The payoff: She paints a more transparent portrait of the creative process.

Whether “Renaissance” will dampen criticism regarding her generous sharing of credits or drive a new appreciation of her artistry remains to be seen. By the end, Beyoncé declares she is ready for the next phase of her life and finally feels free.

May this film be the last time she has to repeat herself.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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