Amanda Dobbins reviews the new Beyoncé documentary:
This is Beyoncé propaganda, a 90-minute self-paean to a pop star whose name is synonymous with control. What’s interesting — interesting enough that Beyoncé feels the need to address it in her own hagiography — is that “control” has become a bad word. “I don’t have to kill myself and be so hard on myself,” Beyoncé says of her perfectionism at one point. You can take that as a stab at self-improvement, or you can interpret it as a savvy attempt to answer her critics in the middle of a film designed to reinforce her Perfect image.
I’m not someone who thinks Beyoncé owes us any details about her life she doesn’t want to share publicly. But I do think it’s intriguing that she wants to participate in the celebrity ritual of confessing trauma and pain, and insisting that she’s imperfect, without having to share any of what actually caused that pain, or revealing any of those imperfections. In simple narrative efficacy terms, being told only that someone feels bad, or needs their independence, or misses their husband isn’t actually very interesting to watch for an hour and a half: if Life Is But A Dream were fiction, I’d complain about the amount of showing, rather than telling, and say the characters were radically underdeveloped. Beyoncé’s inner life is not inherently interesting simply for being hers.
Jody Rosen argues “there’s no question that Beyoncé is a terrible judge of what is interesting about Beyoncé”:
Consider one topic that never comes up in “Life Is But a Dream”: race. You could make the case that Beyoncé has reached an unprecedented position in American life. She is a black woman who has claimed the mantles of America’s Sweetheart, National Bombshell, and Entertainer-in-Chief. (According to Nielsen, an audience of 1.8 million watched Saturday’s broadcast of “Life Is But a Dream,” a record for an HBO documentary, and three times the average rating for the network’s marquee show, Lena Dunham’s “Girls.”) Beyoncé is one half of an African-American royal couple rivalled only by the duo in the White House. She is by far the “blackest”—musically and aesthetically—of all the post-Madonna pop divas; she represents African-American women’s anger and power like no one in popular culture since Aretha Franklin.