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Beyoncé’s self-directed, self-produced documentary all about herself, “Life Is But a Dream,” premieres on HBO this Saturday, following weeks of high-profile Beyoncé-ing, at the inauguration and the Super Bowl, and with much more Beyoncé-ing soon to come. Beyoncé’s persona has always been an exercise in extreme control, control so complete and perfect it’s sometimes indistinguishable from omnipotence. The woman — or, as some would put it, the robot, which is exactly the point — does not mess up, part of why the recent lip-syncing at the inauguration incident became such a melée, the rare human misstep, ultimately resolved with an overpowering show of vocal force.
The fascinating, high-level propaganda piece “Life Is But a Dream,” which I happily mainlined like it was the classiest issue of Us Weekly ever made, purports to cede some of this control, to provide a glimpse of the “real” Beyoncé. It contains Beyoncé and Jay-Z goofily singing along to Coldplay’s “Yellow” and the first sanctioned visuals of Bey and Jay’s daughter, Blue Ivy. (She looks a lot like her dad.) But to the extent that it reveals anything about Beyoncé, it is that, however late into the night she pours her heart out to her computer, her control-freakery is not an act, not masking some broken, deranged, lost or wild alt-Beyoncé, but her defining characteristic.
“Life Is But a Dream” loosely chronicles the making and promotion of Beyoncé’s last record “4,” a period of time that coincided with her pregnancy and with the firing of her father, Matthew Knowles, as her longtime manager. (At the time, Knowles was also divorcing Beyoncé’s mother, having an illegitimate child, and maybe embezzling some money; these all go unmentioned.) She tells the camera crew she has hired to interview her for this film that during this period, “I set a goal, and my goal was independence.” Beyoncé followers will observe that this phrase could very well be the lead into one of her hit songs with Destiny’s Child, “Independent Women.” Even searching her soul, Bey is on message.
Calling on the Greek chorus of haters and naysayers that follow famous people everywhere, Beyoncé tells the camera, barefoot, her hair up and in braids, that she was consumed by questions like, “Do you want to kick ass at radio, do you want a career, do you want to kiss asses? What do you want?” before she determined, “I’m gonna take a risk and bring R&B music back. I’m not gonna try to be cool. I’m gonna be honest, I’m gonna be gravelly and growly and smart.”
There is a thrill in hearing Beyoncé say these things, in part because they are thoughtful, and more so because it is a thrill to hear her say anything at all. We know Beyoncé’s voice, but mostly in song. Beyoncé does not speak off the cuff, give weird interviews, or do anything inappropriate. (It is a measure, again, of her self-control that unlike all of her teeny-pop peers, Beyoncé alone has never acted out, freaked out, or even taken a break.) Despite being a singer, Beyoncé is a person we see, a complete performance artist. Thinking of her, one is as likely to imagine her glamazonian beauty or the instantly iconic “Single Ladies” video than to hear a tune. Even her most impressive vocal feats — her one-shot rehearsal her recent halftime show — have a fundamental physicality to them, a degree of bodily difficulty: Damn, she did that as a warm-up? She sounded great at the Super Bowl, but all I could think about was her resting heart rate. How low must it be? 30? If Beyoncé is anything, she is an athlete.
And so to hear Beyoncé speak, to hear her say to her computer after a particularly bad day, “I think I need to listen to ‘Make Love to Me’ and go make love to my husband” feels revealing. But even just in this phrasing, the well-behaved Beyoncé is present: “make love” and “husband”? That’s about the most wholesome way a person could say that sentence. Moreover, Beyoncé is up late at night talking to her computer, not a friend or her husband, because, among other things, Beyoncé is making a movie about herself and has been making a movie about herself for years. As Nitsuh Abebe put it in New York, Beyoncé’s body of work is a “rich examination of how it feels when drive and discipline really are your organic personality.” Here she is, working hard at oversharing.
“Life Is But a Dream” is also the latest example of why fame probably should be in the DSM. Even as experienced by someone as sane as Beyoncé, it is distorting. One of things that has always fascinated me about Britney Spears’s breakdown — and her documentary, filmed in the aftermath of that breakdown, is an interesting companion piece to “Life Is But a Dream” — was the narrow way in which it reflected a certain reality. Crazy people often believe they are the center of the universe. When Britney Spears left her house to go to the pharmacy, millions of people were paying attention: She kind of was the center of the universe, and the extent to which she wasn’t seems like a lot to expect a person in the midst of a breakdown to parse. Beyoncé is neither crazy nor Britney Spears, but here she is, lugging her still-recording laptop into an elevator lest any second of her life not be recorded for posterity. It’s both self-obsessed and based on the rock-solid assumption that masses of people really do care about her every move. Fame perverts, and absolute fame perverts absolutely.
The best parts of “Life Is But a Dream” are not the confessionals, but watching Beyoncé become Beyoncé. It’s a transformation we see only bits of: Bey guards it closely, like a magician who knows better than to explain her tricks. We see her dancers rehearsing, her video crew up late, struggling to meet a deadline. We even see, during a particularly stressful period, Beyoncé calmly practicing dance moves in a hotel hallway, and, before another show, sitting in a control room with a group of people who are disappointing her, looking like she’s ready to execute every idiot in there. Seeing the size of Beyoncé’s operation is impressive, and there is probably no better moment for her in the movie than when someone trying to be comforting tells her she doesn’t need anyone else, and she disagrees, saying, “I can’t do this by myself” as she gestures around at the huge show she’s trying to put on.
But mostly, there’s no sweat. We hear about her angst, and then we see the finished product. There are a couple scenes of her in a recording studio — she sounds amazing. There are some on stage performances — she’s awesome. How many hours went into nailing those songs and learning those routines? How many bad takes and flubbed moves? Unlike her humanizing confessions about her marriage or her miscarriage, which “Life Is But a Dream” also contains, these imperfect and out of control moments might undermine the myth of the impeccable Beyoncé, unparalleled performer, and so she skips over them. They might have been too revealing.
Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer.More Willa Paskin.