We live in an era where anyone can increasingly curate their own personas, even us “normals” as 30 Rock’s Jenna Maroney would say. Any nobody with the internet can create and filter the public perception of their personality, but of course this self-conscious curation is most obvious with pop stars—Lizzy Grant turned into Lana Del Rey, Christian pop singer Katy Perry became whipped-cream-loving pop superstar Katy Perry.
No one is better at this than Beyoncé. With Life Is But a Dream—the documentary directed, written and produced by Beyoncé herself that aired on HBO this weekend—Beyoncé appeared to give fans an intimate peek into her life while actually delivering, of course, a carefully constructed portrait.
The film is a mishmash of home videos, selfie Photobooth confessional videos (always sans makeup and looking flawless) and more typical documentary style video. It’s not completely linear—it’s more like you are watching a collage, a scrapbook of moments in Beyoncé’s life.
The image that’s presented is of Beyoncé as a hard-working, independent artist. The film shows Beyoncé working—a lot. We get videos of a young Beyoncé singing with friends, recording in studios, and belting out “Listen” from Dreamgirls in a car. Not like Beyoncé needs to prove her talent, but she’s so incredibly gifted that during some solo singing scenes I got chills. But she’s not just running on her voice alone, she’s also extremely disciplined, driven, and has a family who aims to make her famous.
Beyoncé is the pop star equivalent to tennis player Roger Federer: Both make the game look effortless. Beyoncé seems to be having fun while being massively involved in every aspect of her image, from deciding the graphics that go up behind her at the Billboard Awards and to editing videos on her laptop. In Life is But a Dream, we get a look into her work life post-Matthew Knowles, her father and former manager. Beyoncé touches upon their strained relationship—but leaves the details discreetly out of this self-portrait.
Instead of her father’s guiding hand, we see Beyoncé managing herself. She issues “a million notes” on her own performances, pointing out relentlessly during rehearsals when dancing is messy or when the stage not quite the right color. She seems to be learning that good business means being a bit impolite.
Another huge theme in the Life is But a Dream is the importance of women in Beyoncé life. While she doesn’t use the word in the film, I’ll say it: Beyoncé is a feminist. In her documentary, she talks about the importance of women’s spaces—her mother used to run a salon where women would come to get their hair done and talk about their lives. Though she loves her husband, Beyoncé mentions that there’s nothing like a conversation with a woman who understands the unique strains she faces.
During the Billboard Awards performance of “Run the World (Girls)”, Beyoncé discussed the gendered aspects of show business:
Billboard was a huge artistic gamble, but the urge to get my message out was so overwhelming that I didn’t even pay attention to the risk I was taking. Nobody knew I was pregnant during that performance and I’m cool with that. I’m not interested in a free ride but it absolutely proved to me that women have to work much harder to make it in this world. It really pisses me off that women don’t get the same opportunities as men do or money for that matter. Because let’s face it, money gives men the power to run the show. It gives men the power to define our values and to define what’s sexy and what’s feminine and that’s bullshit. At the end of the day it’s not about equal rights, it’s about how we think. We have to shape our perception of how we view ourselves. We have to step up as women and take the lead and reach as high as humanly possible. That’s what I’m going to do.
Bey’s pro-women manifesto seems to permeate in all other aspects of her life that she shares with us in her atuobiopic. One of the major running threads of the film is her pregnancy. She finds out she’s pregnant while traveling and she’s an excited mom-to-be. But at the same time she’s hesitant, sharing a painful story about her miscarriage two years before. We get to see her baby Blue Ivy just a little bit in this film, enough of a glimpse to prove that, yes, it’s an adorable child.
Beyoncé and her husband Jay-Z have always been notoriously private about their relationship and their child. Mr. and Mrs. Knowles-Carter (Jay-Z hyphenated too!) present themselves as a loving, respectful couple in this film. We get to see a bit outside their public personas here, seeing clips of moments that used to be private—the couple going on trips, making emotional birthday toasts, welcoming their child into the world and even having a dorky sing-along to Coldplay’s “Yellow.”
Beyoncé’s documentary builds up the image of her as a generous, thoughtful, empowering person. While Life Is But a Dream features some behind-the-scenes moments from the star’s life, don’t expect any new insight into the inner world of Beyoncé than she wants you to see.