Last April, Beyoncé marched onto a stage in the Coachella Valley and led more than 100 singers, dancers, and steppers through the greatest performance in the modern history of music festivals. Beychella — as it was destined to be known — was live-streamed by 458,000 people, watched by 43 million more on YouTube over the months that followed, and almost immediately dubbed as the definitive pop culture event of the year. This April, Beyoncé managed to fit the whole spectacle into a euphoric, triumphant, and exhaustingly fierce documentary that should help see Beychella enshrined as one of the definitive pop culture events of the century. Call it history in the making, part two.
Even at a time when everything Beyoncé does feels like history in the making, Beychella stands out as a uniquely special event — it remains an epoch unto itself. Of course, most people on this planet don’t need to be told as much. It’s become common knowledge that the concert was an exuberant celebration of black excellence, staged (for maximum impact) at a desert venue that had almost exclusively been an oasis for white artists. It’s now a basic fact of life that Beychella featured brass-forward rearrangements of Beyoncé’s biggest hits in order to highlight the rich tradition of stepping at America’s historically black colleges and universities. There have even been reports of children whose first words were “Remember when the show climaxed with Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams materializing on stage for a three-song Destiny’s Child reunion? Beyoncé. Did. That.” This is the stuff of the collective unconscious — a documentary about it almost feels as redundant as it does essential.
If “Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé” were nothing more than an opportunity to relive Beychella with flawless high-def sound and video, it would still be a major public service (between this and “Springsteen on Broadway,” Netflix has found a truly benevolent niche). And for the first section of this 137-minute movie, that’s exactly what it appears to be. Beyoncé had directed every shot of the livestream in advance, so it’s not as if what the world saw that night was just a random hodgepodge of angles that were desperately trying to capture the moment.
Beychella was designed from the ground up with an eye towards stage and screen, and so “Homecoming” will look very familiar to a lot of its biggest fans (and that’s a good thing, for the most part). Those incredible close-ups and arresting low-angle wide shots are still there. “Drunk in Love” is still an erratically shot mess, and “Top Off” is still iced with a bird’s-eye view at just the right moment. The camera always finds the perfect reactions in the audience, and every time an ecstatic face in the crowd screams a silent “oh my god” it sends a happy chill up the back of your neck.
But then, with the words of Nina Simone fresh in the air (“[Black people] are the most beautiful creatures in the whole world… my job is to persuade them by hook or crook to get more aware of themselves and where they came from”), Beyoncé interjects the first of several interludes that take us backstage for a glimpse at the grueling process of putting this show together. In and of themselves, these short bits often feel sanitized to the point of pointlessness; there’s lots of talk about the extraordinary amount of work that (obviously) went into Beychella, and the excitement in those massive rehearsal spaces is palpable, but watching a few soft-focus clips of Beyoncé learning the choreography doesn’t exactly pull back the curtain on the blood, sweat, and genius that made it all possible.
As the show goes on, however, those asides start to feel more crucial. Not because Beyoncé drops her guard and lets people into her world — she doesn’t here, and never will anywhere else — but rather because she doesn’t. “Homecoming,” as with the extraordinary “Lemonade” and her sometimes cringe-inducing 2013 documentary “Life Is but a Dream” (which includes a peerlessly uncomfortable scene where a boardroom full of white male record label execs sit in a room and bop their heads as they listen to Beyoncé’s new album for the first time), is the product of someone who’s got a stranglehold over her own image. Beyoncé might partner up with co-director Ed Burke, but she’s a natural-born auteur, and the way she uses “Homecoming” to help reframe herself offers some rare insight into the power of her iconography.
As much as Beychella was a tribute to generations of black people and culture, it was also a monument to Beyoncé herself. She knows that. She has to. It wasn’t so long ago that Beyoncé was playing Mike Myers’ love interest — now she’s like some kind of present day Pharaoh, literally building pyramids out of bleachers in the desert. This is her film, and Beychella was her show (to the point where husband Jay-Z is humbled the hell off stage after just a few bars).
Of course she’s always front and center on stage, but even the behind-the-scenes footage is focused on her strength, her fatigue, and the time she’s forced to spend away from her family. It’s remarkable that Beyoncé had the willpower to do any of this so soon after giving birth to a pair of twins — she narrates a vague but powerful section about the complications of their delivery, and emphasizes the difficulties of being a working mom — but that individual focus can be hard to square with the collective spirit of the show around her.
Until it’s not. Each section of “Homecoming” is introduced with an inspirational quote, and the one that might resonate the loudest comes from activist Marian Wright Edelman: “You can’t be what you can’t see.” No one can be Beyoncé, and the whole world can see her, but those words — in concert with the show, the spectacle, and the music that binds it all together — speak to how someone of her divine stature can share their strength. Beyonce’s peerless fame puts her in a position where her strength can be shared with billions of other people; where her achievements can become someone else’s inspiration, and she can teach history while she makes her own.
“Homecoming” would be a pretty blissful experience even if you watched it with your eyes closed, but seeing the effect the show had on everyone who made it, and everyone who was there, adds an extra dimension to the whole thing. The line between art and vanity doesn’t really matter when the queen bee’s success so clearly belongs to the rest of the hive. Even if you already know that, or have felt it in your bones for years, it should be extraordinary to see it play out in such tight formation.
There are a zillion people onstage with Beyoncé over the course of the night, and when she says that “she wanted every person who’s ever been dismissed because of the way they look to feel like they were on that stage,” it almost seems as if she literally managed to get them all. Before “Homecoming,” those folks had the best view of what happened in the desert that night. Now, it’s hard to say. Either way, when Netflix inevitably claims that 100 million people watched this, it will — for once — be easy to believe them.
“Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé” is now streaming on Netflix.