At center stage in the international limelight, Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter is the poster girl of fame. But first and foremost, Beyoncé is a person, one who feels as deeply as her fans and critics alike. In “Life Is But A Dream,” the autobiographical film she directed and produced that was released on Feb. 16 on HBO, Beyoncé poignantly gives a reminder of just that. She explains her journey to independence—from taking on the challenge of managing herself to finding happiness. Through a medley of professional footage of her onstage performances, behind-the-scenes moments, home movies, and private videos taken by Beyoncé on her laptop, “Life Is But a Dream” captures how personal the artistic experience of music is to Beyoncé and exposes the complications of fame.
By opening with contrasting scenes of Beyoncé in concert and alone in thought, “Life Is But a Dream” introduces Beyoncé as both an image and a person, a dichotomy that is explored further as the film progresses. In this way, the film sets a central theme, creating a focus for the film despite the different types of clips used and mix of flashbacks and recent footage. This sequence visually supports the beginning of Beyoncé’s narration as she expresses the need for personal independence amid her overwhelming career. She continues on to explain how the demands of upholding her image in her career caused estrangement between her and her father, Mathew Knowles, who had been her manager since she began performing in Destiny’s Child. The choice of narration in these beginning scenes creates the perspective through which the film presents Beyonce’s life. It sets an honest lens that makes the film more of a personal testimony than a documentary.
Throughout the film, clips of Beyoncé singing alone in both private recordings and the studio are integrated between her narrations. A connection is shown between her testimony and the lyrics of her songs. At one moment, she sits in the backseat of a car, singing the song “Listen,” the lyrics of which convey emotion reminiscent of the hurt she feels in her relationship with her father. When she sings in the studio, the camera focuses on her facial expressions. The raw emotions, in both her voice and body, reveal how her artistry is the opportunity to sing from her heart. This builds on her early statement about her choice to form her own management company, Parkwood Entertainment. In taking ownership of her career, she claimed independence for her artistry and, most importantly, for herself.
By conveying the dichotomy of Beyoncé’s fame, the film provides a perceptive criticism of today’s culture of entertainment. Beyoncé elucidates how the public eye often doesn’t focus on the deep musicianship of a celebrity, stating, “All you think of is the picture and the image that you see all day, everyday, and you don’t see the human form.” She continues on that the present is no longer the age of Nina Simone, with whom people fell in love for her voice. Then, people were enamored by the art of music, not the life of the artist. And Beyoncé admits how hard it is to cope with people exploiting her life for entertainment. Through the honesty of Beyoncé’s testimony, the film exposes the reality of fame, going further to highlight the gravity of its consequences.
This reality is emphasized most by the inclusion of Beyoncé’s testimony about the most profound experiences in her womanhood—her miscarriage and the birth of her daughter. Throughout the film, she expresses joy for the experience of having a new life inside her—she gave birth to her daughter, Blue Ivy Carter, in January of 2012. But fame had already caused detriments in her life, most notably separation from her father, which leads her to state, “I had to hide the best thing in my life.” She admits, “It’s hard to go through painful experiences in the public eye. It’s hard to have closure.” She goes on to share her experience of miscarriage. She explains how right after that moment, she went to the studio and wrote the saddest song she has ever written, but she does not mention the name of the song. By sharing something so personally painful, Beyoncé shows that music is not only for personal enjoyment, but is also a form of therapy for her. The film highlights that fame puts even the most personal experiences of an artist life at risk for public exploitation.
As Beyoncé admits, stardom is a fantasy. But, the struggles that every person experiences is a reality. “Life Is But a Dream” not only gives deep insight into the thoughts and life of Beyoncé, but also deeply analyzes the experience of fame. Beyoncé shares, “Ultimately, you’re independent from you knowing who you are and being happy with yourself.” But, as the film shows, finally getting to that point in life is not an easy journey.
—Staff writer Nzuekoh N. Nchinda can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.