For Beyoncé, directed by Beyoncé, the documentary “Life Is But a Dream,” which makes its premiere tonight, February 16th at 9pm on HBO, is the film equivalent of a selfie. A selfie, as you’re surely aware, is a photo you take of yourself. Gone are the dark days of waiting on a roll of snaps someone else shot to be developed and hoping that some of them are flattering and that the ones that aren’t get thrown into a fireplace somewhere. In our new era of technology, digital cameras as well as the ones on cellphones, tablets and laptops make self-portraiture easy, and people have been freed up to light themselves, showcase their best angles and take shot after shot until one is deemed acceptable. It’s the lens as a mirror — the combination of digital photography and video and the internet has allowed us to more easily present ourselves as we choose to be seen, even if how we choose to be seen involves an unfortunate amount of duck face poses.
“Life Is But a Dream” is Beyoncé’s feature directorial debut — she’s previously helmed some of her own music videos — and it’s a carefully controlled self-portrait from the extremely private star in which even the personal and dark moments have been selected and positioned in order to present the singer in the best possible light. That said, it doesn’t feel like a vanity project so much as an advanced act of managing a public narrative. It’s clear from the film if it wasn’t evident already that Beyoncé keeps a tight rein over her image, her career, her performances and, as she puts it again and again on screen, her art.
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The film is therefore an intensely guarded display of opening up from someone who has no desire to be genuinely vulnerable in a way she isn’t able to have complete authority over. In real life, a request from Beyoncé’s publicist that unflattering photos from the star’s Superbowl performance be removed turned them into a viral hit; in “Life Is But a Dream,” the singer’s able to hire a producer to conduct a softball interview with her as she sits on a couch, glowingly casual in minimal makeup with her hair in braids, and attempts to frame herself as an artist whose work is risk-taking and deeply personal.
Even when keeping an iron grip on her own image, Beyoncé is immensely watchable and fabulous, and the film takes frequent breaks for concert footage of her in action that look amazingly slick and sound stage music video-worthy despite being shot live. What comes between is a more mixed bag — a collage of behind-the-scenes footage of the singer at work, that interview, childhood home movies and video blog confessionals shot by Beyoncé on her laptop, stagey though supposedly never intended for public consumption.
It takes very little effort to make her life appear awfully swell — the film has more trouble making its stakes come across anything other than low, whether in the chances she’s taking on her new album or in performances (something that’s described as a “huge artistic gamble” looks a lot like business as usual) or in her breaking away from her father as her manager, a change she describes in terms of them both needing boundaries, but that seems patched up by the end. Beyoncé addresses her pregnancy and the miscarriage she suffered before it, an event that was clearly distressing to her but that, like every other rough patch presented in the film, is approached by way of the happy ending already reached. She’s far more comfortable being larger than life than being flawed or exposed.
“Life Is But a Dream” is meant to be a personal peek at the always impeccable pop star, but it often makes her seem even more remote, never getting angry, just about always looking great, even when doing some sort of nude pregnancy shoot, overcoming every obstacle, perfectly in love with her equally famous husband, so thrilled to be a mother. The best, most genuine moment is not when Beyoncé addresses her laptop camera about learning she’s pregnant, or when she sits in the dark of her studio after recording an emotional song — it’s a cameraphone shot of her and Jay-Z sitting by the water in a cafe singing along to, of all things, Coldplay. Yes, Sasha Fierce and Hova know all the words to “Yellow,” and they get goofy crooning them to each other over drinks while giggly with pleasure in each other’s company. See? They’re just like us after all.