In a year full of cinematic magic tricks, one of the most memorable comes from an unexpected source. It takes place relatively early in Renaissance: A Film By Beyoncé, just as the electric performances from her 2022 album are swinging into full gear. As “Alien Superstar” (among the album’s best and most acclaimed songs) is getting started, the audio and visual elements that the audience is witnessing fail. For a brief moment, there is uncertainty in the air as to whether the film projection is having issues or if this is just a part of the movie. Quickly, the latter proves true, as we see the behind-the-scenes scramble of the Renaissance World Tour crew to get the show back on track.
The film takes this time to go back into the dressing room as we hear radio updates estimating how long until the concert audience will be left waiting for Beyoncé. There, the realization is made: Beyoncé needs to change her costume. Someone in her camp leaps on this idea, noting that it would be amazing if Beyoncé emerged from this momentary delay in a new outfit. So, they hustle to get her changed, and minutes later the crowd loses it as she is raised from a hole in the stage to pick up right where she left off, the pulse of “Alien Superstar” lifting the concert to a level that wouldn’t have been possible if something hadn’t gone wrong.
As an artist, Beyoncé has made the idea of turning lemons into lemonade a sort of mission statement, a phrase that’s repeated in the movie and, obviously, the titular idea behind what many consider her greatest recorded achievement. But it’s one thing to say it and another thing to witness the practice in action. It’s also a brave and affecting bit of filmmaking when presented in Renaissance. When we look back at 2023 in cinema, we’ll remember Oppenheimer’s dream-like imagining of the effects of his bomb and Ethan Hunt’s motorcycle freefall and Gloria’s thesis-like speech at the center of Barbie as the kind of individual moments that get people to continue returning to movie theaters. But by taking this huge technical malfunction from her Phoenix tour stop and making it a centerpiece of her own film, Beyoncé delivered the kind of tension and euphoric release that people like Christopher Nolan and Greta Gerwig strive for. In short, it’s masterful.
Renaissance: A Film By Beyoncé is written and directed by the star musician, which would typically mean a particularly polished and sanitized version of herself at the movie’s center. Beyoncé rarely gives interviews, barely uses social media as more than a dumping ground for her best looks, and hardly allows people outside of her world to tell her story. So, this type of film is the closest many fans have to access. But as an artist now in her 40s, Beyoncé emphasizes that she’s at the point in her life where she feels free, and that allows for the film to still be revealing and go beyond the perfection pedestal that the Bey Hive places her on. The “Alien Superstar” malfunction captures the idea that maybe the moments where things don’t go right are as essential to the whole story as the moments that they do. Elsewhere, the film is full of similar sentiments.
It’s no coincidence that the Renaissance World Tour offered up her 2006 song “Flaws And All” as the second track of her nightly setlist, for which she went viral for her performance as she would point to the “imperfections” of her body to accompany the sentiment in the lyrics. This has long been something that Beyoncé has wrestled with and is regularly underscored by the insistence that she is beyond critique, that she somehow eschews the troubles and insecurities that the rest of us wrestle with. But in the film, we witness her body failing her (she undergoes knee surgery shortly before the tour is to begin), relive a childhood vocal injury, follow her quest to balance work with family, and observe her commitment to fulfilling her vision in all elements of the tour. Of course, she ends up succeeding on all fronts, because she is Beyoncé and she is more exceptional than the rest of us. But that struggle — the element that she says has defined her career to this point — makes her relatable, and all the more impressive as both a creative and a person.
We even see this in the actions of her daughter, Blue Ivy. In what is likely to be the most talked about section of the film, Beyoncé shows the audience what led to her daughter dancing on stage nightly during the performance of “My Power.” According to Beyoncé, it was meant to be a one-time thing that Blue begged for. But once Blue saw social media critiques of the first performance, she went back and practiced that much harder, determined to use her first attempt at professional dancing as a springboard to improve. As the daughter of two of music’s biggest stars, it would be easy to coast, but Blue was determined to prove her work ethic and ability, a lesson most people don’t learn to this extent at 11 years old. The picture painted is impressive in terms of Blue Ivy, but also in the values that Beyoncé is passing on to her family. Flaws can be improved upon. It’s all part of the process.
Mostly, though, the film stands as a testament to the recent achievements of Beyoncé. Existing as part concert film and part tour documentary, Renaissance: A Film By Beyoncé focuses on the last year of Beyoncé’s life, as she relishes the freedom that being a 42-year-old woman brings. We see clips from across the US and Europe and focus particularly on her hometown show of Houston, tracing the journey from backyard performances to stadiums. We see the reason she felt the need to highlight queer ballroom culture on this album, how her Uncle Johnny played such an important role in her early career costumes and her lasting musical taste. We meet both her crew and her fans, the two elements that are essential puzzle pieces for the creation and reception of her art. And we see the performances, showing why the last couple of decades have seen her as one of (if not THE) most important musicians of her time. And while viewers should yearn for Beyoncé to allow others access to tell her story, we’re left with a stunning self-portrait that shows Beyoncé embracing her flaws, using them to improve, and passing on her hard-fought wisdom both in her home and on the stage.