‘Beyonce: Life Is But A Dream,’ And Celebrity Life Challenges As Marketable Commodity

Over at Vulture, Amanda Dobbins has an interesting post responding to the criticism of Life Is But A Dream, the documentary Beyoncé Knowles produced about herself and largely drawn from footage she either shot of herself via webcam and had shot for her as part of her efforts to archive her life, that it’s boring and stage-managed, a testament to Beyoncé’s perfectionism rather than genuinely revealing. Dobbins suggests that it’s a rebuke to the culture of celebrity meltdown:

Life Is But a Dream is nothing but an exercise in public togetherness; even the webcam confessionals and a tender speech about her miscarriage can’t hide the obvious calculation behind the self-directed film. 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. It’s probably a little bit of both — if anything, Life Is But a Dream teaches us that Beyoncé is not much more than a construct of recorded footage. (She is filming herself all the time, after all. Even in the elevator.) But it highlights a troubling celebrity truth: Somehow, being perfect — onstage, on-camera, even at home — is not enough. We expect to see our pop stars fade, even as we shame them for it. We want Britney to fall apart again on national television. We want to lecture Rihanna about her romantic choices. We want unfiltered and “real” celebrity access until we get it, and then we want to punish the celebrities for it, because humanity is a pop-star sin, too.

Tyler Lewis, a dear friend of the blog, and a non-Beyoncé fan had a rather different reaction, that Life Is But A Dream gave him his first real sense of who she is, and how it affects her music:

I didn’t get the sense that she wasn’t interested in being truly vulnerable so much as unpracticed at it. I have this profound sense that this is a 31-year old woman who has never allowed herself, or been allowed, to feel deeply. So this film is an exercise I think in watching her learn to be vulnerable. There’s that moment where she says, almost surprising herself, that she can’t do it alone. Or the way she conveyed more deeply the hurt she feels that people would think she would fake a pregnancy than she does relating what it must have been like to have had a miscarriage.

My reaction to the documentary was rather different than either of theirs, and maybe more cynical. Precisely because Beyoncé is so savvy about her public image and her identity as a brand, Life Is But A Dream struck me as an attempt to exploit the extremely valuable dynamic Amanda has identified. The movie opens with Beyoncé discussing in general, emotional terms her decision to fire her father from his position as her manager, a role he’d played throughout her career. She talks in vague terms about her inability to earn his approval, but never names details of their relationship, creative differences, business decisions, or the fact that Matthew Knowles had an affair that produced a child, leading to the end of his more than thirty-year marriage to Beyoncé’s mother. Similarly, she talks about her miscarriage, but never with any detail about what caused it, and how it affected her feelings about her subsequent pregnancy and the successful birth of her daughter, Blue Ivy, which she describes as an ecstatic experience.

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.

And more than that, there’s something troubling at work in the emotional dynamics here. Beyoncé telling us that she is sad and anxious may be a way of asserting control over tabloid culture and our tendency to eat female stars alive. But it’s a fundamentally conservative acquiescence to a dynamic that has the extremely poised, put-together, and successful Lena Dunham confessing to popping anti-anxiety medications in Rolling Stone, and that makes Connie Britton an aberration for insisting that, in her mid-forties, her life is actually pretty terrific. For some reason, we’re convinced that stars have to have problems like ours, or preferably worse, and that what makes them different from us is not necessarily, or at least not only, talent, but the ability to transcend obstacles that the rest of us can only contend with as mortals. I’d have infinitely rather watched a documentary that delves into the details of what it takes for Beyoncé to be Beyoncé, from a real look at a rehearsal, to how she manages her schedule to spend time with her husband and her daughter. Exposing the time it takes to get a show right, the staff it takes to manage Beyoncé’s logistics, and the money it takes to make her life manageable and feel normal would be a much smarter critique of our perceptions of celebrity than trying to play into a dynamic that requires Beyoncé to prove that she’s a Mess Like Us.