What Beyonce’s Documentaries Have Taught Us About Her Life

November 27, 2023
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A Film by Beyoncé has become the official title used to denote pivotal entries into an archive that Beyoncé Knowles-Carter has been building for decades. It first appeared with the release of Homecoming (2019), a documentary concert film that captured the musician’s historic headline performances at Coachella in 2018. This year, Parkwood Entertainment is following up the culture-shifting Netflix release with Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé, which similarly enshrines the global tour she completed in support of her seventh studio album. “In this world that is very male-dominated, I’ve had to be really tough,” Beyoncé explains in the trailer for the documentary, which hits theaters Dec. 1. “To balance motherhood and being on the stage, it just reminds me of who I really am.” And these films are how she has told us who she is.

Through documentaries leveraging various levels of access over the course of her career, Beyoncé has sought to even the scales within this imbalance and provide glimpses of insight into who she really is. The onscreen narrative around the musician has surfaced recurring thematic threads between both her artistry and personhood. She’s been captured leading grueling, hourslong rehearsals, business meetings, and studio sessions — but also processing difficult pregnancies and familial strife in more reflective moments. The hyper-personal revelations and confessions embedded in these films were rarely ever divulged for the mere sake of sharing or crafting a false sense of proximity. Frequently set against the backdrop of high-scale performances, they communicate just how much compartmentalization goes into Beyoncé’s commitment to fortifying her legacy — and the control she retains around it.

“She’s smart because she realized the value of owning her own footage,” Ed Burke told Out in 2014. Now Parkwood Entertainment’s visual director, the videographer first met Beyoncé in 2004 and followed her around the world three times over the course of seven years. “I ended up shooting everything. It was like this for 16 hours a day. She’s backed off a bit. We still have a videographer, but the access isn’t quite as crazy.” This shift mirrored Beyoncé’s withdrawal from the music industry’s commercial cycle. Next month marks a decade since she dropped her self-titled visual album in the dead of the night, opting out of the rules that apply to almost everyone else. It’s become harder than ever to gain access to Beyoncé, and her elusive celebrity keeps her audience on high alert. Even Lemonade, the visual album released in 2016, functioned as a revealing autobiographical work, if only because it was the only place to gain insight into her world.

“I always battle with, how much do I reveal about myself? How do I keep my humility?” Beyoncé explained in Life Is But a Dream, the HBO documentary she co-directed and released in 2013. The film followed the musician as she prepared for a four-night residency in Atlantic City in 2012, as well as her pregnancy reveal at the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards. It was also interspersed with intimate footage captured far away from the stage. “How do I continue to be generous with my fans and to my craft? How do I stay current, but how do I stay soulful?” she questioned. “It is the battle of my life. When I walk onto a stage, I’m able to come out of my shell and be as fabulous and over the top and strong and powerful as I want to be.”

But it’s more complicated than that. The 2010 special I Am… World Tour, directed by Burke, was mostly a concert film, but the featured behind-the-scenes footage was telling. “It’s gonna be almost nine days without resting my voice and my body,” Beyoncé said in a voice-over. Her travel and touring schedule was weighing heavily on her. Detailing back-to-back flights, performances, and the studio time she scheduled in between, she admitted: “I’m just really upset that I don’t have anyone that’s concerned about my body and my well-being.” Her exhaustion is promptly juxtaposed with a fiery live performance of “Diva.” There, she blazed through the same choreography that the song would be set to in Homecoming nine years later. The movements were nearly identical, but her capacity as a performer had changed.

In the time between those two versions of Beyoncé, she had become a mother to three children — including a set of twins born less than a year before she became the first Black woman to headline Coachella. “There were days where I thought I’d never be the same. I’d never be the same physically. My strength and endurance would never be the same,” she said in the film, which she directed alongside Burke. “A lot of the choreography is about feeling, so it’s not as technical. It’s your own personality that brings it to life. And that’s hard when you don’t feel like yourself.” Her devotion to the art of performance itself was no different. But her search for balance had become more urgent.

“Trying to learn how to balance life with a six-year-old and twins that need me, and giving myself creatively and physically — it’s a lot to juggle,” Beyoncé explained. “It’s not like before where I could rehearse for 15 hours straight. I have children, I have a husband, I have to take care of my body.” One of Homecoming’s biggest revelations was that she had to undergo an emergency C-section when doctors couldn’t detect a heartbeat for one of the twins. It called back to the sobering moment in Life Is But a Dream when Beyoncé recalled, in self-recorded footage, the miscarriage she suffered before having her first child, Blue Ivy Carter, in 2011. “It was the saddest thing I’ve ever been through,” she said, remembering the doctor’s appointment where she was told that there was no longer a heartbeat.

The most intimate footage in Beyoncé’s earlier documentaries was often captured this way — no massive camera crews following her around, just her vlogging on Macbooks and early-model iPhones. In Life Is But a Dream, she bolsters the maternal thread throughout these works with footage of her nephew, Solange’s son Julez, at the pool. She also talks about the strain that being self-managed put on her relationship with her father, Matthew Knowles. In I Am… World Tour, she considers taking a 25-hour flight from Romania just to spend 48 hours with Jay-Z and counting down the days until they’re reunited. And from as early as 2003’s The Making of Dangerously in Love, the ocean has frequently appeared in Beyoncé’s documentary releases as a place of peace and escape. In both Year of 4 (2011) and Life Is But a Dream, she embeds candid beach vacation footage. “I learn from her everyday. Mostly, it’s how to take certain things that we bring to the table and make it her own,” Burke told Out. “She elevates everything.”

Films like Homecoming and now Renaissance provide rare insight into the intense behind-the-scenes process of building the presentation of Beyoncé’s music on a large scale. It’s what happens in the months leading up to these culture-shifting career moments and the cultural context surrounding them. Before, her focus was largely on preserving the performances themselves. Features like Live at Roseland: Elements of 4 (2011) and The Beyoncé Experience Live (2007) were more straightforward records of her live shows. They included the occasional addition of home video footage from her childhood and early years with Destiny’s Child but also lingered on the faces of enthralled fans in the audience. And earlier releases, like Year of 4 and The Making of Dangerously in Love, were more hyper-focused on the creation of the records.

Beyoncé most recently shared her recording process in Beyoncé Presents: Making The Gift, the 2019 documentary going behind the scenes of her Lion King companion album. The 40-minute film focused on her collaborative process and the cultural foundation of the record, but also captured her recording music with Blue Ivy. Homecoming similarly showed her daughter presently absorbing her creative process while visiting her vigorous rehearsal space at only 6 years old. Throughout the Renaissance tour, Blue Ivy emerged as a captivating performer herself, dancing alongside her mother during “My Power” and “Black Parade” in select cities.

In a recent interview, Jay-Z recalled an agreement they made with their daughter before she could step on stage in front of tens of thousands of people. “If this is something you want to do, you can’t just go out there. You gotta go work with the dancers and go work,” he said they told her. “And she worked every day. I watched her work hard. She had a little icy pack thing on her back some days.” It’s one of the most anticipated moments expected to appear in the forthcoming documentary concert film.

The scale of Beyoncé’s productions has steadily increased as she continues to serve as a meticulous director of performance, even for her own daughter. Within that, she has consistently made room for her dancers to tell their own stories through movement. In Year of 4, after coming across the Mozambican dance group Tofo Tofo on YouTube, the singer recruited the trio to teach her their choreography for the “Run the World (Girls)” music video. “We gotta get them out here,” she said. “This gon’ change their lives.” In Homecoming, a young Black woman expresses how honored she feels to be a dancer in Beychella, particularly because she knows her son can grow up and look back on what she was a part of.

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“It was important to me that everyone that had never seen themselves represented felt like they were on that stage with us, killing ‘em,” Beyoncé said in Homecoming. “I used to feel like the world wanted me to stay in my little box. And Black women often feel underestimated. I wanted us to be proud of not only the show but the process. Proud of the struggle.” There, she told this story through the often understated cultural significance of HBCU performers. On the Renaissance tour, her messaging was amplified through the Black queer culture that provided an ironclad foundation for her three-hour performance, as well as the dozens of game-changing women — from Diana Ross and Grace Jones to Janet Jackson and Rihanna — who had their names flashed across the screen during “Break My Soul.”

Beyoncé’s intentional documentation of her career has never just been about her. Her steady ascension to pop culture’s icon tier has positioned her as an otherworldly and luminous figure — one who is formidable and out of reach to an audience seeking the escape she provides. But as it turns out, her presence on stage is her own escape from challenges that, at their core, are purely human. When her legacy is appraised, these documentaries will reflect the history of a legend but also a mother, wife, and champion of liberation. That’s the narrative that she has crafted. “When I am performing, I am nothing but free,” Beyoncé says in a trailer for the Renaissance film. “The goal for this tour was to create a place where everyone is free, and no one is judged. Start over, start fresh, create the new — that’s what the Renaissance is about.”



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