Savage X Fenty Show & Making The Gift, Reviewed September 30, 2019
On two unrevealing behind-the-scenes documentaries
avage X Fenty Show, a 50-minute documentary recently released on Amazon Prime, is a gloriously ambitious ad. The special is spiritually similar to
the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, except what’s being marketed to the public is a more inclusive, Rihanna-helmed lingerie line that decidedly doesn’t prioritize the straight male gaze.
What we see in the film was first witnessed, live, by the glitterati at the Barclays Center during New York Fashion Week. Savage X Fenty Show, released just weeks after the showcase, isn’t a concert movie, but it feels like one. Think of a stage show where we’re admiring not vocal ability but sartorial choices. Seeing the thing live was, I’m sure, great for adrenaline junkies — the best kind of an attack on the eyes and ears. When the event isn’t underscoring the eye candy provided by Rihanna’s lingerie, which is modeled by a wide range of women (many of them super famous), it’s putting on a throne manicured performances from Migos, Halsey,
Cara Delevingne and Rihanna at the Savage X Fenty Show, 2019.
DJ Khaled, and others. What was it like to see all this as it was happening? Only a select few members of the elite know; at least a sliver of them shared some of what they took in on Instagram. But the feature nonetheless makes you feel like you too were there. Rihanna isn’t just inclusive when it comes to clothing; the prosperous and the poor alike can revel in the show. The 50-minute special is here to give Prime subscribers and pirates both some stuff the real-life event could never provide: a closer look into what went into the spectacle before it debuted; a more high-definition, multi-angle view of the event — something you couldn’t see from front-row seats. Even those who beheld it for real might be inclined to see the cinematization.
The cinematic version of Savage X Fenty Show is a product to be sold. I couldn’t decide whether I should let my guard down and be enchanted by it or if I should be distrustful. (Whatever answer one lands on, it’s inarguable that Rihanna is a savvy businesswoman.) The first few moments of the quasi-movie are dedicated to behind-the-scenes footage. None of it is very revealing. Everything is catering to the grand-scale informericial (as the writer Troy Patterson recently put it) that is this movie. When not delving into tense backstage dramatics to get us fired up — “we don’t have a finale yet,” one of the show’s choreographers says, with some apprehension, after we’re told the event is 10 days away — we’re hit over the head with reasons why we should be praising this brand.
We’re told that not an item of clothing is sold without Rihanna having first approved it, which also means she’s touched, smelled, every single garment before it’s been boxed and shelved. While mapping out Savage X Fenty, Rihanna championed both ideas of bodily inclusivity and envisaging herself as an ever-shape-shifting muse. This is all very personal indeed. The film is unabashedly selling us clothing, but it’s also selling the image of Rihanna as a kind of divine maker — an anomalous, hyper-gifted creator who puts as many drops of blood, sweat, and tears into her forays into fashion as she does her music.
Nothing seen during the film’s first act syncs up with the claims of authenticity, though. Even if there wasn’t a script, there’s an overriding sense that a potential narrative shape was drawn up and then hours of footage were picked through to bring that narrative to the frontlines. There are a couple of moments that are meant to be candid, and thus signals of the movie’s sincerity: one where Rihanna’s helping with design-work and accidentally gets a red inkblot on a model’s ass, another where Rihanna tells a designer that she doesn’t like an item so flatly it’s cruel — that is until everyone breaks into laughter. But these are merely unflattering moments beautified — contrived Rihanna-is-just-like-us flashes. During the propagandistic flourishes of the film’s first act, I had that knotty feeling you get in your stomach when you’re sitting through a commercial and it’s clear you’re being sold to, with the merchant thinking you haven't noticed.
So I was thankful for the actual show. The behind-the-scenes shenanigans might be strikingly phony. But you can’t fake an engaging stage set no matter how assiduously it’s been edited. Savage X Fenty Show, for certain, is engaging — a smorgasbord of inspiredly geometric stage design, bold flashes of choreography, and smooth performances from its group of musical guests du jour. (Other sonic choices are slick, too: I especially dug the use of Tweet’s “Oops [Oh My]” during a particularly carnal sub-showcase.) The lingerie in Savage X Fenty Show looks neither particularly comfortable nor sexy — what’s seen here is mostly ornate as to looking markedly exclusive — but the hard-to-achieve cool factor is on the opposite spectrum effortlessly achieved. And we know that Rihanna’s push for inclusivity is genuine.
Still, the commercialism of Savage X Fenty Show has an icky tang to it. I could never fully let loose and have fun, even though I was compelled by what I was witnessing. Because one can never truly let loose and have fun when another person’s trying to give them something for a price. It casts a shadow of doubt — an effect Rihanna likely wasn’t going for.
eyoncé Knowles, another multi-hyphenated pop star, is also someone who knows the power of propaganda. She first proved herself a proponent of the promotional form through 2013’s Life is But a Dream, an
autobiographical HBO TV movie. It was meant to give fans a frank look at her life, but it was more so seen by many as a glossy and romantic remixing of truth. Knowles’ dominance over the public’s perception of her has only gotten more pronounced since then. After the release of her surprise self-titled album the same year, she has seldom granted interviews. When she does provide access, it typically comes in the form of as-told-tos or magazine-friendly essays over which she can exert ultimate control.
One could accuse Knowles of further capitalizing on the promotional trend through her visual albums. But since those can be claimed as art, which isn’t required to tell the whole truth to begin with, those instances can slide. Though even the decision to excuse was tested with this year’s Homecoming documentary, which turned her 2018 Coachella performance into a bonafide epochal concert movie. In addition to making this recital be somehow more epic-feeling, behind-the-scenes footage was sprinkled in to give it further shading.
Yet what we saw was rarely telling. Little was actually shown; consciously planned reveals made us temporarily believe in this tightly controlled version of reality. Like the “real-life” kindling fueling the earlier parts of Savage X Fenty Show, Homecoming above all else knew the appeal of rendering an artist’s struggle akin to heroism, which, to be fair, it felt like naturally. Most of what we saw, in terms of what was supposed to be cinema vérité, was shot in an isolating black and white, with Knowles diaristically sharing observations through carefully thought-out voiceover work. Her musings were put through what sounded like a telephone-crackle filter, creating more distance. But we could ultimately excuse the obfuscation of candor. Did anyone watch Homecoming for the purpose of getting forthright glimpses into Knowles’ artistic process? What was enticing was seeing the historical moment from a newer and showier angle.
Knowles’ mightiest artistic undertaking since Coachella has so far been The Gift, the soundtrack album she put together for this year’s remake of The Lion King (1991). Knowles didn’t say she'd be taking on such a massive project when it was first announced she’d been cast in the film. (She voices the character Nala.) But I immediately figured she’d be doing something beyond voice-acting. By now, the 38-year-old Knowles doesn’t seem content being a secondary voice.
I never saw the new The Lion King, and I don’t think I will. The naked apathy on the part of Disney, in remaking so many of its original animated classics, is tiresome. But I immediately listened to and for the most part loved The Gift, which saw Knowles giving a platform to a plethora of African artists who aren't widely recognized in the states. In contrast to the laziness inherent in a movie remake, the musical compilation was an attempt to quench an artistic thirst that I as much held in high regard as a critic as I did enjoy as a casual listener.
I was curious, as I took in Knowles and co’s offerings in my headphones, what the collaborative process of making The Gift looked like. But I wasn’t so curious that I needed detailed answers to my questions. Making The Gift, an obviously titled new ABC documentary, tries to provide us with answers anyway. But like most documentary-like products Knowles puts out as of late, it doesn’t feel that honest. Like Savage X Fenty Show, its main purpose is to make us want to buy a product. Making The Gift is really just a lot of visualizations of what studio work looked like some of the time. But we don’t learn much about how Knowles got into contact with the artists featured, how these co-writes looked, what it feels like being a curator. It’s almost entirely Knowles talking about what she had in mind for each song in scripted-feeling terms. The hour-long (with commercials) piece falls flat even as entertainment. It’s reticent as to feel airless, though we at least get cute footage of Knowles’ children, who, even at a young age, possess a star-like charisma.
Whereas I once appreciated Knowles’ Prince-style shutting-out of external media forces, I find myself getting increasingly vexed by the practice. The inside looks are frequently treated as sacred by her fanbase, which I'm assuredly a part of. But once we get into contact with them do we realize that they don’t say at all what we hope they might. It’s possible to reveal what appears to be everything while revealing nothing. Knowles more and more proves this. Much of what she gives us in Making The Gift feel like shiny passages from a fact-excising memoir. The stakes are low, true. This is a supplementary documentary, which doesn’t require heart-on-the-sleeve honesty. But the age-old habit of artists giving us a rather mythologized account of a facet of their lives under a sheen of truth bothers me. Why give us anything if, at the end of the day, it’s like we’re being coddled to offer praise?
Savage X Fenty Show: B-
Making The Gift: C