In her buoyant Netflix concert film Homecoming, documenting her iconic 2018 Coachella performance, R&B megastar Beyonce laments that she never achieved her childhood dream of attending a historically black college or university (also known as an HBCU). "My college was Destiny's Child. My college was traveling around the world, and life was my teacher." Her historic set, featuring pyramid-shaped bleachers brimming with over 100 marching band musicians, drum liners, percussive steppers, backup dancers and baton twirlers, was a numinous homage to the culture and pride of HBCUs. But while Beyonce never formally earned a degree, Homecoming stands as her graduate dissertation, a grandiose masterwork that dissects, hallows and archives the arts of the African diaspora.
Beyonce is the first African-American female artist to headline hipper-than-thou music fest Coachella, that bobo's paradise in the California desert, taking the stage in April 2018 following the birth of her twins. Canonized #Beychella, her beatific 26-song set and epic staging roused audiences across the world and even inspired a Coachella-set episode of HBO's comedy Insecure. The immaculately choreographed performance was destined for hyperbole, gleaming with the theatrics of a world tour, not a fauxhemian indie festival. Succeeding her extolled 2016 visual album Lemonade, an ode to righteous black female pain, and her incendiary 2017 Superbowl halftime show, which alluded to history's Black Power movements, Homecoming is the apotheosis of this artistic transformation from pop queen to political actor. Her film revels in global blackness, full stop.
Directed by Beyonce herself and co-directed by Ed Burke, the nearly two-and-a-half-hour film is a potpourri of musical genres, visual references and literary allusions that only the best-trained ears and eyes could comprehensively detect. Her set — covering everything from "Crazy in Love" to "Say My Name" to " Countdown" to "Mi Gente" — seamlessly flows from song to song, delicately imbibed with costuming, dance skits and orchestral arrangements referencing: black minstrelsy; New Orleans jazz; Egyptian royalty; Rick Rubin's New York hip-hop; The Wiz; Caribbean dancehall, the Civil Rights movement; West African dance traditions; Atlanta trap/Dirty South; Motown; gospel; and funk. Her rendition of "Lift Every Voice and Sing," colloquially known as the black national anthem, fluidly melds into "Formation," her reverberating celebration of southern black feminism.
Infused throughout the film are quotes from black icons and scholars such as Toni Morrison, Nina Simone, Maya Angelou and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, among others. It's raw. It's unapologetic. It's also impeccably curated. Is this a genuine acclamation of Black Girl Magic or another form of corporate feminism co-opted by modern moguls? Eh. My cynicism can only go so far when seeing the blue-lit faces of a thousand screaming Queen Bey worshippers, as shown continuously throughout the film. She doesn't just move people: she IS the movement.
Homecoming will probably go down as one of the best concert films of all time — these critics lists are typically dominated by movies revering white dude rock bands — though the movie is most directly inspired by Madonna's confiding documentary Truth or Dare, which also relies on chiaroscuro behind-the-scenes footage. While Homecoming's own intimacy is shallower, with its narrative dominated by the two Coachella performances interspersed with "artistically" filtered black-and-white shots of the show's months-long rehearsal process, Beyonce's vulnerability is apparent. Her voiceover narration in these moments elucidates the grueling preparation and physical endurance it takes to deliver this level of grandeur, not to mention the toll on her as a mother of three. She emphasizes the "it takes a village" ethos of grinding 150 creatives and the film is perfumed with Christian faithfulness highlighting the camaraderie of both this micro-community and the macro-community she's trying to reach with her music.
In these scenes, she comes off as less an apocryphal pop star entangled in her own webby mythology, and more a confident woman tightly in control of her public persona. I wish the film were less enamored with these artsy, eclectic filmic pretensions and more inclined toward a comprehensive chronology of how Beyonce and her team conceived her Coachella performance from scratch.
I say this because the show is so rife with intellectual clarity and spiritual urgency, I want to better understand the genesis of this exaltation of black artistry. Beyonce may borrow from the semiotics of HBCU Greek life and collegiate homecoming football games — bedazzling her show with Balmain-designed costumes that include majorette-chic, cropped sorority sweatshirts, denim cutoffs and tinsel Louboutin thigh-high silver boots — but it has more of the aura of a commencement ceremony. An end and a beginning; a culmination of cultural achievement and a salute to its future.
Nothing, not even this beautifully shot documentary with a dynamic, swooping camera, can replicate the communitas inherent to an alchemical concert environment. (Then again, is it truly the full concert experience if I'm not getting beer spilled on me, bumped into by drunkards, kicked in the head by teen moshers or trying desperately to see the act in the cracks between the shoulders of people much taller than myself?) Ultimately, Homecoming feels akin to those filmed Broadway musicals that air on PBS for plebs like me. It's a joyous ride, but a facsimile of the experience. A shadow puppet on the wall of Plato's Cave.
Over the past six months, our zeitgeisty obsession with the pathos of female pop stars has brought us films like A Star Is Born, Vox Lux, Teen Spirit, Her Smell and Wild Rose. As good as some of these films are, Homecoming is a reminder that these performances are merely pretend. As someone who's historically clung more to the music of Beyonce husband (Hova was my first-ever concert), even I can appreciate the majesty and magistery of her message: Let anger be your fuel, let self-love be your guide.
Directed by Beyoncé Knowles-Carter and Ed Burke
Produced by: Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Steve Pamon, and Erinn Williams
Premieres: Wednesday, April 17 (Netflix)