Homecoming April 25, 2019
Blue Ivy Carter
2 Hrs., 17 Mins.
o commemorate the one-year anniversary of her triumphant performance at Coachella, Beyoncé released Homecoming, a hybrid of a concert movie and a behind-the-scenes documentary, last Wednesday. Distributed on Netflix, the feature, which chronicles the event across two weekends, at once makes for a crucial cultural document, a rare glimpse at Beyoncé’s creative process, and an opportunity to experience the show with a
sharper knowledge of how it was envisioned.
Homecoming is undoubtedly one of the great rock docs, joining the pantheon of genre definitives like the Talking Heads-centric Stop Making Sense (1984) and the Prince-focused Sign ‘o’ the Times (1987). It was one thing to watch what the media referred to as “Beychella” on a live stream last April, which allowed us to marvel at the presentation, analyze its deeper meanings. But it’s another to view the still-magnificent event through a more cinematic lens, and to experience it with personal touches more conspicuously attached.
It remains a thrill when Beyoncé makes her first appearance. She initially stands, regal and resplendent, in a Nefertiti costume by Balmain, while tromping, glorious “welcome” music blares. Following numbers, which include 2003’s “Crazy in Love” and 2016’s “Freedom,” hint at the electricity that will prove to steadily emanate for the entirety of the performance. But it isn’t until Homecoming delves into behind-the-scenes footage, shortly after a moving version of the black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” that the power of the documentary is evinced.
Grainily shot backstage drama is sprinkled in throughout the movie, usually following a handful of thematically linked songs. It is through them that we get an understanding of not only what Beyoncé wanted the performance to be, but where she was at, personally, while doing the mapping. She speaks to us through voiceover; her words are filtered through a sound effect that makes it seem as though she’s speaking to us over the phone, at once adding distance and careful intimacy.
Homecoming is bursting with revelation. We learn that it took eight months for Beyoncé and her most trusted collaborators to plan the performance. Four were spent sorting out the musical arrangements; the rest were dedicated to blueprinting, and then rehearsing, the ultimate product. We also discover that, heading into Coachella, Beyoncé had just barely started recovering from what she describes as an “extremely difficult” pregnancy. She had had to undergo an emergency C-section, and understandably came out thoroughly exhausted. She wondered, during the period immediately following, if she would ever again be “herself.”
Beyoncé reveals that she was also at her heaviest — 218 pounds — when she began planning. Early in the movie, she tells her colleagues that her goal, eventually, was to be able to SoulCycle, complete a workout on the stair-climber, and rehearse all in the same day; she tells us, via narration, that, to prepare, she permitted herself “no bread, no carbs, no sugar, no dairy, no meat, no fish, no alcohol” in the months leading up. “And I’m hungry,” she adds, her grimace almost audible. The candor of these snapshots catches us off guard, given Beyoncé’s reticence post-self-titled album. But, with the hyper-stylization and brevity of the behind-the-scenes logs, she predictably keeps us at an arm’s length, keeping her characteristic enigma intact.
Beyoncé envisaged the concert to be something of a talent show — more than just a showcase of what she could do as a soloist. “The amount of swag is just limitless,” she says, at one point, about the assortment of artists who would ultimately accompany her on stage. “The things that these young people can do with their bodies, and the music they can play, and the drum rolls, and the haircuts, and the bodies, and the — it’s just not right. It’s just so much damn swag.”
It’s established that, in addition to hand-choosing everyone involved with the production, Beyoncé sought to find a middle ground between unification and difference — to ensure everyone be in harmony but also highlight individual talent. (The moments during which she temporarily departs the stage, leaving her dancers and instrumentalists to partake in skits, musical asides, and more, are some of the performance’s most gleeful.) The special guests chosen — including her sister Solange, for a euphoric rendition of “Get Me Bodied”; Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams for a proficient, if all-too-brief, Destiny’s Child reunion; Jay-Z, for a loose, snappy interpretation of “Déjà Vu” — give further weight to the aspiration. So do invocations of musical influences like the Jamaican dancehall icon Sister Nancy and the Nigerian multi-instrumentalist Fela Kuti.
The first thing we see in Homecoming is a quote from Toni Morrison, taken from her 1977 novel Song of Solomon. In keeping with Lemonade (2016), an album which teemed with black-feminist iconography and other scholarly references, Beyoncé calls attention to the black academics and thinkers who have impressed themselves on her. Spare title cards zero in on germane thoughts from eminent intellectuals like W.E.B. Du Bois, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, and Marian Wright, whose words, all circling around endurance, education, and freedom, embolden the visual and sonic ideas driving the performance.
The most complementary quote — the one which, I think, best echoes Beyoncé’s desire to inspire, and her remarkable ability to continuously and cannily evolve — comes from Reginald Lewis, the first African-American man to build a billion-dollar company. “Keep going, no matter what,” he obliquely tells us. Following each quote, accentuated is each influence’s alma mater, rounding out both the obvious and allusive celebrations of education in the concert.
Many backing performers are enrolled at, alumni of, or aspire to be part of, an historically black university. A host of the show’s sartorial choices, too, are visibly inspired by the educational. “So many people who are culturally aware and intellectually sound are graduates of historically black colleges and universities, including my father,” reads a quote, from Beyoncé, that works as one of the last things we see in the movie. “There is something incredibly important about the HBCU experience that must be celebrated and protected.” Praised here, though, are not just the virtues of scholarship, but also sorority and fraternity — something vital beyond the academic that not just complements the idea of the concert acting as something of a temporary cultural nucleus, but helps the performance work partially as a paean to unity, too.
It was intoxicating last year to watch Beyoncé “come home,” even if on a laptop screen. But it seems, now, that at that moment we were only seeing a preview of something greater. Homecoming, by giving prominence to more than just the concert itself, improves on what was already an indubitable masterpiece. By explicitly clarifying her influences and aspirations, Beyoncé ices on a layer of dimension that entails an alternative, more rewarding experience, even if we’re conscious that every component is being meticulously presented as to epically uphold her mythos.
Concert-movie purists could argue that the Coachella footage, which arguably is mostly a more glittered version of the live stream, is not cinematically innovative enough to preserve the film’s nascent standing as a tour-de-force of the concert film. Because there’s an aura of restraint hovering within behind-the-scenes action, the feature is susceptible to criticism for demonstrating a sort of filtered, too-carefully cultivated vulnerability. But any chance to see the preeminent artist of her generation captured at the peak of her powers, whether it’s wholeheartedly “cinematic” or comprehensively raw, is to be delighted in. I finished Homecoming appreciative to have been able to bear witness to Beyoncé at her apex. A