The vision is powerful and persuasive, but the contradictions on display within “Renaissance: A Film By Beyoncé” are endlessly fascinating.
As a global superstar and generational talent, Beyoncé is an astonishing force to behold in this epic documentary of her most recent concert tour. She morphs from radiant, benevolent goddess to Afrofuturist cyborg to seductive, ferocious vixen over the course of nearly three hours. She assures the sobbing members of her adoring audience that she aims to create a safe space for them while also grinding and growling and inspiring them to do the same. She’s every woman, it’s all in her, and she convincingly exudes total authenticity through every mood while also singing the hell out of a wide array of hits and flexing her muscular dance moves. Amusingly to any woman who has entered middle age, Beyoncé also has discovered the liberating joy of not caring what people think anymore. We see her turn 42 over the course of the film, with none other than Diana Ross leading tens of thousands of fans in a birthday serenade during one of her Los Angeles shows.
But as writer, director and producer of “Renaissance,” Beyoncé Knowles-Carter clearly cares very deeply about making sure that every single thing is perfect, both in the tour and in the film about the tour. Her quest for absolute excellence, for obsessing over details large and small, already was evident in “Homecoming,” the infectious Netflix documentary she directed about her headlining performance at Coachella 2018. Unlike the recent, record-breaking “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour Movie,” which was purely a concert film, “Renaissance” takes you behind the scenes in ways that are both familiar and original. We see Beyoncé rehearsing with her backup dancers and enjoying downtime with husband Jay-Z and their three kids, for example. The black-and-white imagery calls to mind the staged intimacy of Madonna’s “Truth or Dare,” but she gives these scenes a quiet warmth. She returns to the Houston neighborhood where she grew up and has a too-brief reunion with her former Destiny’s Child bandmates. But in her narration, Beyoncé also goes into great detail about the cost and complexity of the scaffolding that holds the enormous stage together, the innovation of the many video screens, and the pride she feels in having so many women among her backstage crew. She shouts out her drivers, trainers, seamstresses, even the stylists who braid the dancers’ hair, and this showing of generosity feels genuine.
If you like movies about process, about people who are good at their jobs, then you’ll probably find “Renaissance” entertaining regardless of your familiarity with Beyoncé as an artist. As she probes and pushes about the specifics of camera lenses and lighting cues, she declares matter-of-factly, “Eventually, they realize: This bitch will not give up,” and the fellow Virgo in me felt seen.
And yet, we’re constantly aware that we’re seeing Beyoncé through Beyoncé’s specific prism. There is no such thing as a candid moment. It’s the most artful propaganda, with exquisite cinematography and frequently shifting sources and aspect ratios. The editing in particular is breathtaking, often on the beat and with the mesmerizing trick of showing off a variety of couture designs. The film is worth seeing simply to appreciate the wildly inspired costumes she wore throughout the tour, from colorful bodysuits by Pucci and Loewe to delicate, barely-there sparkles from Agent Provocateur to a stunner of a neon green hooded gown by Gaurav Gupta.
“Renaissance” is both intimate and vast as it basks in Beyoncé’s impossible beauty but also turns the camera toward the audience to emphasize the powerful sense of community the Beyhive provides. Her status as a queer icon is a key component here, from the fan-clacking fans dressed in glittery silver who sing along to every word to her touching tribute to her late Uncle Johnny, a gay Black man who was an essential family member and instilled in her an early love of both fashion and house music.
Oh right, the music – we haven’t even talked about that yet, there’s so much else to consider within this spectacle. “Renaissance” runs the gamut from classics like “Crazy in Love” to recent hits like “Cuff It,” with tantalizing cameos from Megan Thee Stallion and Kendrick Lamar. With her tremendous vocal strength and effortless runs, she sounds amazing even as she exerts herself physically, whether she’s stomping across the massive stage or being hoisted above the crowd on a shiny, silvery horse. It’s a lot—and at two hours and 48 minutes, it ultimately feels exhausting, although for superfans, it probably could never be enough. But then the introduction of her 11-year-old daughter, Blue Ivy, to dance during several numbers provides a surprising amount of emotion. Blue trained hard to earn her spot onstage for songs including “My Power,” Beyoncé tells us, and in that moment, she’s just a fellow mom bursting with pride to see her child grow and thrive.
If you couldn’t get a ticket to see her perform in concert—or even if you did but want to relive it all over again—seeing “Renaissance” in a theater, preferably with great sound, is the way to go. But even when the sound goes out, as it did for 10 minutes during her performance of “Alien Superstar” in Glendale, Arizona, in August, it provides another opportunity to watch in awe of Beyoncé’s professionalism. Not only does she ensure that the show must go on, she uses the opportunity for yet another wardrobe change, once again taking lemons and turning them into lemonade.
In theaters now.