For all the accomplishments that filled Aaliyah’s tragically short life, there’s not much, dramatically speaking, upon which to hang a movie — even a relatively modest one for Lifetime. So advance controversy about the casting, among other things, can only benefit “Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B,” a near-content-free exercise that dutifully goes through the singer’s life in episodic fashion, up until her death at the age of 22. Alexandra Shipp is perfectly fine in the title role, but the slim material doesn’t provide much more depth than the actress’s teeth-cutting days at Nickelodeon.
Perhaps the most obvious cinematic template would be “La Bamba,” which captured Ritchie Valens’ rise to musical stardom, before his own death in a plane crash. Only that at least featured the singer’s struggle for success, as well as his difficult relationship with his older brother.
By contrast, Aaliyah essentially starts on second base, and is heading toward home plate before you know it. The singer is introduced as a 10-year-old girl on “Star Search,” quickly landing a spot in Vegas performing with her aunt by marriage, Gladys Knight (Elise Neal). By 15, her uncle (Lyriq Bent) has secured her a meeting with producer R. Kelly (Cle Bennett), who oversees her platinum-selling debut album, and in the one genuinely dramatic interlude, marries her, despite being 12 years her senior.
Even those scenes, however, are relatively chaste — played so straight as to lack any real teeth, especially given Kelly’s subsequent legal woes regarding sexually abusing under-age girls. “You ain’t got to look at the sun to know it’s shining,” he tells her during their studio sessions.
Aaliyah’s parents force an annulment, but her pain quickly passes as she insists on her own producing team and promptly churns out another mega-hit, all the while charting her move into movies, encouraged by her loving mom (Rachael Crawford).
And that, frankly, is about that. Shipp — who replaced Zendaya in the title role — is certainly beautiful, but there’s only so much to be done with such a thinly drawn portrait. Despite being based on Christopher John Farley’s book, the adaptation from director Bradley Walsh and writer Michael Elliot labors along in at best workmanlike fashion, as if the billboard and title do all the heavy lifting. And for Lifetime’s purposes, that’s perhaps the case.
Indeed, Walsh even employs a pointless split-screen effect during the several musical montages, as if grasping for a creative flourish to foster a sense of pace or excitement that simply isn’t there.
From that perspective, it’s questionable whether this movie chronicling “The Princess of R&B’s” short reign adds anything to her legacy, much less warranting the fuss that preceded it.