Beyoncé’s “Homecoming” is in a class of its own, expertly combining rapping and dancing, literature and stage patter, propaganda film and backstage drama, not to mention hair and makeup.
“Homecoming,” directed by Beyoncé, is a triumphant self-portrait, a major statement of a concert movie, and, also, with its interpolated bits of rehearsal footage and conceptual planning, an industrial film exulting in its own colossal assembly. It is a document collating two performances, last April, at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, where Beyoncé mounted a show that commandeered the traditions of historically black colleges. She cast a marching band as her conduit for a review of American music; to set the tone, she hit the stage in a hat that crowned her as Queen Nefertiti and as a drum major at once.
The thing was impressive enough seen live on a laptop, on the Coachella livestream—one of the very best things to screen last year. The star sang her hits with heart, shook her ass with panache, and uplifted the race by delivering a spectacle of soul. Quite a few of the bootlegs that have pinged around YouTube in the year since have a raw charm—you can hear the fans in them babbling with giddy narration and squealing like bobbysoxers. The full thing on Netflix, framed as the fruit of artistic striving, may come close to achieving its epic ambitions, but it’s too soon to tell—the verdict won’t be in until a whole generation of children, homeschooling themselves on its choreography, have come of age.
“Homecoming” is in a class of its own as a total synthesis of the pop arts: rapping and dancing, literature and stage patter, propaganda film and backstage drama, not to mention hair and makeup. A Gesamtkunstwerk, with a heap of twerk in it. But Beyoncé’s beacon is less Wagner than Duke Ellington, in that she composes a symphony in sound and movement and media and negritude. In any case, the sense of competition is essential—the movie fruitfully exploits the game-day conceit of the homecoming theme.
The camera work and editing capture both the steamship scope of a big show and an alluring illusion of cabaret-club intimacy. Watch the scene reflected like a funhouse in the bell of a bopping sousaphone. Admire the band on its pyramidal riser, like the bleacher seats of Giza. Beyoncé, a canny director, knows to exalt her heroic attitudes of arena-rock posturing, hip-hop swagger, and total-diva sweep. “Homecoming” is, in postmodern fashion, and to great effect, a fan-service monument to her superstardom. She is like a Medici commissioning a masterwork to show her power, except the patron is also the master—as well as the model and the subject.
Beyoncé’s proficiencies include the art of publicity, and her messaging is as precise as her melisma. Her control—and control is the subject of so much of this material—is such that she administers strategic doses of intimacy; the concert footage periodically gives way to behind-the-scenes sequences. I don’t think she thinks that we mistake these scraps of frankness for total candor, or an unadorned face for a soul laid bare. But the performance of “authenticity” is part of her job, so she talks, in the documentary, about scrapping an earlier plan to play Coachella after becoming pregnant with twins, whom she delivered in an emergency C-section. Her personal narrative is a journey through what lifestyle reporters would call a “post-baby body struggle.” Her gestures toward ordinary human scale on the “private” level make her public figure seem all the more imposing. (She also has an imperative to create images that play like tasteful infomercials for Ivy Park sweatshirts and leggings.)
The philosophical core of the behind-the-scenes passages—the artist’s statement built into the art—describes Beyoncé forging the consciousness of her race in the smithy of her soul music. It was an exquisite choice to perform, early in the show, “Lift Every Voice and Sing”—the black national anthem, a hymn full of faith that the dark past has taught us, with its chords piping memories from an A.M.E. pew to the base of the spine and up through an elated chest. It works as an invocation, entreating love and respect and a necessary evocation of humility. Later in the set, Beyoncé will, in a bravura display of headbanger hair-tossing, be issuing the order to “Bow Down (Bitches).” But thou shalt not bow down thyself to any graven image, and a pop idol on a jumbotron definitely counts as one of those. The hymn helps put things in perspective. To pretend to divinity is simply one of her job duties. Really, she’s an itinerant deacon—her calling is to administer the sacrament that is the show.