‘Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé’ Review: Peak Performance

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By Ketrin Agustine

‘Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé’ Review: Peak Performance

The concert film offers a comprehensive look at a world-conquering tour and rare insight into the process of one of the world’s biggest stars.

Of all the absurdities in “Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé,” the one that takes the cake comes in the homestretch, long after the film’s revealed itself to be both a face-warping concert movie and a moving, unexpectedly transparent feat of self-portraiture, after the screen’s gone black and the speakers silent during her performance of “Alien Superstar” (which happened for about 10 minutes on the tour’s Phoenix stop) and the placid voices at “Renaissance” mission control sound concerned, after we’ve beheld one costuming outrage chase another, after we’ve witnessed technicians inform her that something’s impossible and she informs them that she’s looked the problem up and that, indeed, it is possible. (“Eventually, they realize this bitch will not give up,” she says, backstage, to the camera.)

After all of that and about two and a half hours more, out comes the most outrageous costume of the evening. The bee. It’s by Thierry Mugler and lands somewhere between bathing suit and “Barbarella,” an exoskeleton breastplate in yellow and black, with black thigh-high boots. That’s not what kills me though, not really. It’s the matching helmet and yellow visor that cover the top half of her face. The helmet’s got horns that taper into antennae, and they swing, at about waist level. She’s put this thing on for her partisans in the Beyhive.

That’s not even the deadliest thing about the costume, which, yes, on its own is a trip. It’s that at some point during this passage, a local TV news desk appears onstage. Its station call letters feature no vowels yet remain unprintable nonetheless. And from behind that desk, this titan of song, movement and facial expression, this mother of three and daughter of Tina and Matthew Knowles, this creature of Houston and global inspiration who has elected officials asking themselves “What would Beyoncé do?” — she is dressed like a bug, a bug who stings, in order to do the news, which, in the film, is simply this: “America? America has a problem,” the title of the bottom-bumping Miami bass jam that doubles as the wickedest joke on the “Renaissance” album. Here, in a film written, directed, produced by and starring Beyoncé, it’s camp. Divine camp.

The absurd has always lurked on the perimeter of the Beyoncé experience, what with “do you pay my automo bills” and “can you eat my Skittles” and “got hot sauce in my bag — swag!” But she hadn’t fully wielded it, truly allowed it to take her to Mars until “Renaissance,” the album, the tour and, as of this weekend, the movie. I don’t know if it’s entirely possible to be supremely conscious of one’s self and yet be vividly unselfconscious, but that’s where Beyoncé finds herself.

This movie wants to convey a great deal about the woman who made it. Predominately, it’s that despite the metallic sheen Beyoncé’s cultivated she — to quote a glitchy Captcha screen that gets projected at every show — “is not a robot.” The film is an effective humanizing of a naturally withholding star. The last time Beyoncé took a stab at this kind of auto-documentary was 10 years ago with “Life Is but a Dream.” That movie was an introvert’s idea of extroversion. “Renaissance” is less cloistered. It widens the guardrails from alleyway to thoroughfare. It’s busy; and, in its business, casually revealing. The woman who’s made it has found a rich balance between the taciturn and TMI. We can see freckles. She includes flubs and flaws. We witness a parent in an assortment of resonant parenting moods.

Beyoncé turns 42 in the film. It’s Diana Ross who graces a Los Angeles show for a round of “Happy Birthday.” And the older Beyoncé gets, the more her ambition expands, as a friend of mine puts it, toward the archival. (Her backup singers are styled to evoke En Vogue. The tour’s vibe is disco-shimmer. Some of the dancers are vogue specialists.) She’s bringing the past with her into the present, communing with both an audience and her ancestors, accepting stewardship as a rite of longevity. At her “Homecoming” show at Coachella, in 2019, she came out as a bandleader. The resulting show was an achievement of artistic self-rearrangement, of what happens when your hits meet your people’s musical history. “Renaissance” does something like that but internationally.

It furnishes a lot to go “aww” over, too — a trip to her girlhood home; the sight of her children parroting their mother’s choreography backstage, in what looked like their PJs; a peek at a five-way Destiny’s Child reunion; the stretch devoted to maternity, or Uncle Johnny, a late family friend and gay man whose love of dance music led to “Renaissance,” and who now is immortalized in the ferocious read Beyoncé does at the end of that album’s “Heated.”

What moved me, though, is her sense of awe that any tour gets pulled off at all; her wonder at the alignment of artistries and skills solely in the name of her art, wonder at the labor of so many woman technicians. Watching her aim for perfection in collaborative environments and be second-guessed (in two differently pointed moments by Blue Ivy Carter, her eldest child), brought to mind Barbra Streisand’s ruminating in her new memoir about her own pursuit of it, why as a performer it’s necessary and how vexing doubt can feel. These two also share a passion for the importance of lighting. And watching Beyoncé figure out how things should be lit turned a lightbulb on for me: She points out that all of that luminance is often being aimed at her, like into her eyes. It has to be right.

None of this is what I came to a “Renaissance” movie hoping to experience. Had this merely been a film that said “I had a tour and this is how it went,” I’d take it. That approach basically worked for Taylor Swift. But Beyoncé’s done more than that. This is her fifth long-form visual project; we’re now talking about an auteur. Simply at the presentation level, coherence and visual imagination are in the house. There are different shooting styles, camera approaches and lensing ideas that capture the show’s inherent command of action but transform concert into cinema. Rather than focus on a single show, the movie is more or less all of the tour dates, sometimes seemingly in a single number. Every time we’re permitted to watch a craftsperson building something backstage or an artisan hunched over a sewing machine or doing painstaking beadwork, I thought about the pile of credited editors who are doing the equivalent of tweezing a zillion sequins onto a piece of fabric.

They know when to cut to the crowd and when to hold on their star and her mighty, mightily synced yet physically heterogeneous dancers. We can see thrilling choreography in full. The cuts to the crowd here don’t qualify as fan service. Nearly every time we’re with someone in the audience, they’re amplifying what’s happening onstage, complementing, meme-generating. They’re giving face. In a packed movie theater, it’s tough to know whether the ecstatic applause and clacking fans are from Beyoncé’s movie or the row to your rear.

There’s also some risk here. “Renaissance” the album is a marvel of ever proliferating rewards of stupendous production and vocal wit, a vulgar dessert menu that unspools all night. But the film interprets that music into a new organism, something closer to “Madonna: Truth or Dare” — well, as close to it as Beyoncé could bring herself. At some point, Beyoncé muses that she’s several different flavors of people. Of the stomping, snarling, sci-fi dominatrix onstage, she pleads plausible deniability: “I’m not really responsible for that person.” That might be the most succinct explanation of what camp is: the one mode of expression beyond a perfectionist’s control.

So no, it’s not exactly the extroverts’ playground of “Truth or Dare.” Its offstage antics don’t rhyme with what happens during the shows. There aren’t may antics offstage in “Renaissance.” The one realm effectively cashmeres the other. “Renaissance” is daring to be true. For we have before our eyes an entertainer at peak command of her art and therefore herself. We don’t exactly need her to tell us how newly free she feels, as Beyoncé does here. She’s meaningfully permitting us to study her touring and family life, to examine — no, to savor — her creative process. I mean, we’re seeing her do the news dressed like a bee, and the news is about her booty. At 42, she’s Funkadelic in reverse. Her ass was free. Now her mind has followed.

Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé
Not rated. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes. In theaters.

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