Director: Beyoncé Knowles-Carter
“I wanted every person who has ever been dismissed because of the way they look to feel like they were on that stage, killing ’em, killing ’em.”
This quote from Beyoncé, which floats through the first of Homecoming‘s intervals, should serve to quiet dismissals that this film is merely a concert film. It is a concert film (and one of the great ones; its one of the great concerts), but there’s more happening here. There’s more of a statement. This has been true of everything Beyoncé has put her name to since famously firing her father as her manager. In the years since she has put out more creatively driven work, made many more millions, and become one of the defining pop stars of our times. And the work is always acknowledged as hugely collaborative. She hasn’t gotten there alone.
Her 2018 Coachella performances (two colour-coded sets were performed and they are cannily intermingled here) were a mini cultural event. The show itself renamed the festival “Beychella”. Now, the artist herself re-brands it again as Homecoming, taking ownership, authorship. This 145 minute film is largely culled from the footage screened last year. Indeed, the opening 16 minutes is the opening 16 minutes of the show. And what a show. A pyramid of black men and women; Egyptian iconography in the costumes mixed with the good ol’ American bandstand; brass players who can play and dance; and Bey herself, careering through the first portion of the set which runs like an exhausting, breathless medley. From “Crazy In Love” to “Formation”, this opening salvo alone is worth the score stamped at the bottom of this review.
This alone – a concert film – would have been enough, but in the edit Beyoncé judiciously intercuts with backstage footage of the hard work and preparation that went into this career apex event. She celebrates the pride and talent evidenced by her supporting players. She speaks candidly about the daunting task of getting herself ready for this ordeal after a complicated pregnancy. The discipline of it. And, in soundbites like the one above, articulates the ambition of the concert as a performance piece.
Being a cultural icon comes with a lot of baggage, and this seems especially the case for ‘minority’ artists. There is an expectation to represent harder. To maintain (or even refute) a cavalcade of expectations of complex imprint. It is in this position that Beyoncé has found herself, and she has embraced the challenge spectacularly. Her late-career work confronts sexism and male entitlement; it acknowledges and celebrates cultural heritage; it speaks to remove the stigma surrounding ‘blackness’. It celebrates womanhood.
The Coachella show projects all of these things. It’s fierce. It’s also funny (see the intermission in “Sorry”). It’s relentless. It may even have proven influential already (those boiler suits… was Jordan Peele taking notes…?) Beyoncé occasionally cuts to quotes from historical scholars that underscore her mission statement. “Education must not simply teach work – it must teach life” from W.E.B. Du Bois is a primary example. Homecoming is a celebration of the artist and the music, but it is also a challenge to black audience members to take it as inspirational. To place song and dance in a societal context. A political one. And for other audiences to feel like they’ve seen a culture. Understood it a little more. And been impressed.
It is impressive.
Beyoncé is also the queen of her art form because she’s a savvy businesswoman. Making this documentary, securing the footage of the performances, making a deal with Netflix for this film; it all speaks of a design for longevity that began at a conceptual level. A live performance is a finite thing. It happens and its gone; you were there or you weren’t. By capturing the Coachella set, bottling it in this way and lionising her own efforts, she attempts to make the finite infinite. Now, a year on, its an event all over again. A moment is packaged. The package is a memento. ‘Beychella’ will keep happening in living rooms. With the advent of this film, it will be discussed years down the line as one of the great music films. Of course there’s a tie-in live album. This is goddess-level legacy building. It comes as no surprise.
Elements of both the concert footage and the backstage material are presented as Super 8 footage, bringing a whole other set of connotations. These interjections make us think of history. Make us think of the Zapruder footage and by extension America’s persistent history with violence and its boundless love of filming itself. And they make us think of Homecoming as a part of that chain. But instead of destructive, its creative. Combustive in another way.
Last year on social media, watching a poor-quality copy of the ‘yellow’ Coachella performance, I joked that “‘Beychella’ is the best film of the year’. A year later and Homecoming is one of the best films of the year. No joke.