This past January marked ten years since Beyoncé made her film directorial debut with the HBO documentary Life Is But A Dream ahead of her surprise self-titled album. One of the most personal projects in her oeuvre, the film found the pop star in a state of metamorphosis following the end of her professional split from her father and former manager Michael Knowles and the birth of her first child, Blue Ivy Carter.
Not only did she revolutionize the “digital drop” and raise the bar for pop music videos within that year; she began to adopt a life of extreme privacy, transitioning from a visible A-list celebrity to a more mysterious, almost deity-like figure. Every soundbite, red-carpet appearance, and film project since has felt like some sort of miracle, a gift from God herself to her die-hard fans.
That’s why the announcement of a Beyoncé documentary always feels a bit earth-shattering. Still, the promise of getting some access into the singer’s highly secured life always reveals a much more urgent message: Beyoncé, whose talents are both a given and somehow always under-appreciated, is one of our best working filmmakers today. It’s certainly the primary takeaway of her latest marvel, Renaissance: A Film By Beyoncé, in AMC theaters, which manages to elevate a drifting standard for concert films and music documentaries in the era of streaming.
Like the 2022 album and the subsequent tour at the center of the film, Renaissance is a mammoth of a concert movie. Even with all the footage that emerged from The Renaissance World Tour over the summer, Beyoncé and all the worker bees in her hive have crafted the sort of highly detailed production that requires multiple, up-close viewings to really digest all of its majesty. Audiences will experience the sort of sensory overload that (in the case of my theater) elicits a church-esque and specifically ballroom-like experience, with crowd members singing, woo-ing, “yasssss”-ing and, of course, clacking their Renaissance merch fans.
That said, Renaissance is one of the most emotional experiences you may have in a theater. And part of the film’s success is its ability to make you feel capital-F feel for over two hours without any of its repeated plays for sentimentality feeling cheap or unearned. This is almost certainly because Beyoncé dedicates most of the film to celebrating the work of undersung communities within the entertainment industry and society at large, from the tireless crew members who build and transport her enormous, multiple stages to the queer Black and Latinx creatives whose ingenuity and radical expression served as the primary inspiration for her seventh album—the most significant being her Uncle Johnny, who designed her and her Destiny Child’s members’ costumes before tragically dying of AIDS.
Likewise, segments are dedicated to ballroom icon Kevin JZ Prodigy, who serves as the concert’s emcee and who Beyoncé has described as the “heartbeat” of her tour. We also enjoy brief appearances with her tour dancers and other collaborators on the album like Honey Balenciaga, TS Madison, Memphy, and Darius Hickman, among others. Their grainy, black-and-white interviews can’t help but bring to mind the concert film of all concert films, Madonna: Truth or Dare, which was another pivotal moment of exposure for underground queer cultures 32 years ago. Overall, there’s a clearer sense of love and vocalized appreciation for these communities in Beyoncé’s film that probably comes with hindsight but also the singer’s experiences being a marginalized person herself.
Speaking of whom, the film is still very much a portrait of Beyoncé at a crucial and liberating time in her career. After years of being a self-proclaimed “serial people pleaser,” the musician speaks of finally achieving a “no fucks given” attitude in her forties. It’s a very stark contrast to her previous concert film Homecoming, which charts the performer preparing for an unprecedented headlining performance on the Coachella stage under the most extreme pressure. Renaissance is about Beyoncé creating her own stage, if not her own world, while trying to meet a standard that she’s created herself.
However, work life hasn’t necessarily become less easy as her confidence has risen. It’s amazing to see that even someone as accomplished as Beyoncé still be second-guessed by the people she’s employed. “Being a Black woman, I feel like everything is a fight,” she says early in the film. We see a montage of the singer repeatedly explaining her vision to technicians and other crew members. In a particularly comical moment, she tells her crew she was able to find the camera equipment they told her wasn’t available on Google.
The film also includes some of the mishaps that happened on tour, including some sound issues during a performance of “Alien Superstar” in Glendale, Arizona. The way this moment appears in the film feels like watching a character get shot in an action movie. Watching her immediately come up with a solution for this issue and return to the stage with even more attitude than she had originally is like seeing a superhero come back to life in the final act of a comic-book movie.
On that note, the artful editing and dynamic camerawork creates the sort of compelling, cinematic experience of watching a soldier going into battle every time Beyoncé steps onstage. Beyoncé, her myriad performers, and stage props are shot in a way that not only captures their beauty but magnifies the sweat and energy that goes into every movement. Cinematographers Dax Blinn and Kenneth Wales manage to balance all the glory of the stage, costumes, and dynamic lighting while giving each of Beyoncé’s dancers and instrumentalists their individual time to shine. That’s not to mention all the funny (and relatable) shots of fans in the audience being absolutely gaga by the production.
Additionally, viewers can count on the iconic transition in Homecoming times 10 during every performance, as an ode to the tour's impeccable costumes. As much as this film is about music and dance, it’s also about the transformative power of fashion.
Overall, early reviews focusing on how much the audience can learn about Beyoncé herself are sort of missing this point. The film is a tribute to the community and all the invisible hands involved in the process of making something. One of the most admirable things about Beyoncé—which defies the notion that she wants to appear perfect and effortless—is how fascinated she is with how art is made, rather than just boasting about the final product. Likewise, Renaissance presents her latest world tour as the culmination of various efforts, voices, ideas, references, and mistakes—all guided by a confident and masterful visionary. It's certainly the concert film of the decade, if not the entire century.