The early verdict on Beyoncé’s Life Is But a Dream could have been written before the documentary even aired: It’s glossy and aspirational, but too perfect; it teaches us nothing. Beyoncé remains a cipher. As New York Magazine’s Nitsuh Abebe wrote in his review, this “is a criticism one hears of Beyoncé qua pop star, that she is flawless in an empty, dutiful way. That beneath the warrior-queen performances and public togetherness, there lies a robot.” Life Is But a Dream is nothing but an exercise in public togetherness; even the webcam confessionals and a tender speech about her miscarriage can’t hide the obvious calculation behind the self-directed film. This is Beyoncé propaganda, a 90-minute self-paean to a pop star whose name is synonymous with control. What’s interesting — interesting enough that Beyoncé feels the need to address it in her own hagiography — is that “control” has become a bad word.
“I don’t have to kill myself and be so hard on myself,” Beyoncé says of her perfectionism at one point. You can take that as a stab at self-improvement, or you can interpret it as a savvy attempt to answer her critics in the middle of a film designed to reinforce her Perfect image. It’s probably a little bit of both — if anything, Life Is But a Dream teaches us that Beyoncé is not much more than a construct of recorded footage. (She is filming herself all the time, after all. Even in the elevator.) But it highlights a troubling celebrity truth: Somehow, being perfect — onstage, on-camera, even at home — is not enough. We expect to see our pop stars fade, even as we shame them for it. We want Britney to fall apart again on national television. We want to lecture Rihanna about her romantic choices. We want unfiltered and “real” celebrity access until we get it, and then we want to punish the celebrities for it, because humanity is a pop-star sin, too.
This is not a particularly sustainable form of entertainment, and it discounts an increasingly irrelevant aspect of pop-star success: actual talent. Beyoncé is not famous because she’s good at Twitter (Beyoncé has tweeted four times); she is famous because she can sprint around a stadium while belting “Halo,” because she can shake her hair like a bobble-head doll and sing “Run the World” simultaneously, because she does the work. The famous husband and presidential BFFs add to the appeal, obviously, but Beyoncé gained one-name-legend status by dominating the competition, and in scary high-heels too. If it requires a Monica-from-Friends level of control to achieve like Beyoncé does, then so be it. Perfectionism serves Beyoncé well.
Granted, it doesn’t serve tell-all documentaries so well. It’s not unreasonable to watch a feature-length film about a celebrity and expect to learn something about the human involved, and Beyoncé refuses to get messy. Despite the format’s promises, this is the right choice for her: a weeping, histrionic Beyoncé would actually be faker than the calm, platitudinal Queen Bey we saw sitting on that couch. She is a monument of control, and Life is as honest a look into what it’s like to be Beyoncé — the 24/7 performing, the obsessive strategy, the perfection — as any VH1 special could be. If it’s not as compelling as Behind the Music, well, we have plenty of washed-up pop stars for that genre of storytelling. In the meantime, watch the performance half of Life Is But a Dream and re-consider perfectionism. It has its benefits.