Nobody throws a 3 a.m. weeknight party like Beyoncé, who thrilled a pretty substantial portion of the streaming Western world with the Netflix premiere of “Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé” very early Wednesday morning. Bosses and teachers might actually have been short-term beneficiaries of this sleep-depriver of a premiere: If you didn’t show up at school or work feeling buzzed enough to run the world — girl, woman or man — you must’ve dozed off holding the remote.
There surely hasn’t been this big a national No-Doze night since last Black Friday, only the occasion here was Black Wednesday. Beyoncé hasn’t exactly made it a secret that her 2018 Coachella shows— and now the streaming film that documents them — were designed to bring a specifically African American feel and experience to the world, basing the whole show in her love for the culture of historically black colleges and universities. For the part of the audience that doesn’t require an explainer on drumlines, bugaboos or black sorority signifiers, the Coachella shows were moving enough to be tear-jerkers as much as dazzler-dazzlers. Anyone not quite so clued in to every racial or cultural thing Beyoncé was elevating could still feel floored by the righteousness of it as pure spectacle: What’s documented here is surely the first concert in history you could imagine Cecil B. DeMille and W.E.B. Du Bois being equally proud of.
As I was watching this go down live in Indio last April, I had two immediate thoughts: One was that this was one of the greatest entertainment experiences I’ve ever witnessed. The other was that I really didn’t want to think about the insane level of work, discipline, control-freakiness and probably torture that went into making something this massive this seamless. But Beyonce would very much like you to think about it, now, a year later. “What people don’t see is the sacrifice,” she says in one of the movie’s many voiceover segments, talking about the extreme limits to which she pushed her body in developing two-plus hours of constant, rigorous movement, even as a mother of brand new twins. “I definitely pushed myself further than I knew I could. And I learned a very valuable lesson. I will never, never push myself that far again.” You may be thinking you’d rather not see how hard she pushed; there’s a reason the medium of dance has inspired more horror movies than screwball comedies.
But “Homecoming” remains a joyful affair, even as Bey is making sure she gets a little credit for devoting her life to exhaustively mastering every last move between breast-feedings. Most pop superstars who go heavy on the hoofing have a hard time disguising the fact that they’re not really having a great time. But I can’t stop thinking about the sly smile she offers as she and her fellow dancers go into a silly kind of knock-kneed move as she moves into “Hold Up.” If she’s faking her enjoyment there, or all the other times she busts into something between a smirk and a grin, she’s a better actress than she ever let on in her brief fling with Hollywood. Yes, she can spend parts of the movie telling us that after being up to 218 pounds before the twins’ birth, “in order to meet my goal, I’m limiting myself to no bread, no carbs, no sugar, no dairy, no meat, no fish, no alcohol — and I’m hungry.” But it feels like it’s euphoria pangs that she’s suffering, if anything, when she’s on stage, not least of all when Jay-Z joins her for a duet of “Deja Vu” that reminds you that these are real people with real chemistry, not Louvre figures. All that physical punishment has given her the ability to seem ridiculously relaxed right in the middle of all that rigid getting in formation.
On a pure documentary level, there’s not much new news here. If you thought that the Beyonce who doesn’t give any interviews anymore is going to open up in hugely unexpected ways just because she’s interviewing herself, you’ve underestimated her line-drawing resolve. There is a fascinating section, mid-movie, where she speaks in voiceover about the difficult pregnancy that caused her to postpone doing Coachella for a year. “In the womb, one of my babies’ heartbreak paused a few times, so I had to get an emergency C-section,” she says, echoing statements she already made in a (naturally) self-penned magazine essay. “There were days that I thought I’d never be the same,,, physically. My strength and endurance would never be the same… I had to rebuild my body from cut muscles… In the beginning it was so many muscle spasms that, just internally, my body was not connected. My mind was not there. My mind wanted to be with my children.” Was it worth it, or does she regret spending so much time away from them so she could deliver a message to the children of Indio? Or was it worth it? An outside documentarian would have asked, but Beyoncé is going to draw the curtain back just so far.
There are other questions a real interviewer might have put forth, too, like: Did she mean to evangelize black culture to a Coachella audience that, any attendee would attest, is far from majority black? Or was it really aimed squarely at African Americans for inspiration and affirmation, and the live festival was just the most convenient delivery system? Nearly all the crowd reaction shots are of people of color, so much so that you’d swear it was filmed at the Essence Festival. She does eventually cut to a white guy, for a laugh, as he sings along with “Say My Name” during the Destiny’s Child reunion segment, as if this anthem about stepping up to shady men had been the dude’s lifelong jam. (By the way, when you reunite Destiny’s Child and it gets mentioned in the sixth paragraph as something else that happened, you’ve got a hell of a show.)
Too, it would have been nice if she documented the many creative decisions that went into the extravaganza, although maybe she thought to turn the cameras on too late to capture any conceptualizing seasons, or maybe — well, certainly — dancing just makes for better cinema. We hear a lot from some of the inspired young performers who populate the cast (every one of them chosen by Beyonce herself, she tells us), but you want to know much, much more about how the brilliant musical arrangements and choreography were conceived in the first place. That’s the kind of stuff you’d at least like to see hours of in DVD supplements, except this is Netflix, so…
In the performance segments, it’d be hard to overstate how well its shallow pleasures and deep profundities commingle. The costuming manages to be both, from her Egyptian queen look in the opening runway walk to the sorority sweatshirt that soon follows, or the smart berets that make the leotard-clad female dancers look like culture warriors in a Bob Fosse version of D-day. There is a constant level of stuntwork among the dozens and dozens of dancers and musicians you don’t have to read too many semiotics into to enjoy. Sometimes drumline members who do cymbal crashes between their legs while executing high kicks, or contortionists lined up on that Busby Berkeley staircase doing unearthly things one at a time, need no thematic justification. They all represent black excellence — that’s a pretty big umbrella theme, whether she’s covering “Life Every Voice and Sing” or doing one of the scorched-earth, wronged-woman songs from “Lemonade.”
For some of us who were actually there at Coachella, there might’ve been a slight fear that you had to be there” — that we were overselling the show, caught up in the same kind of festival fever that makes journalists at film fests go crazy with Oscar prophecies. Rewatching it on film a year later, “high water mark in 21st century entertainment” actually almost feels like it’s underselling it, just a tad. It starts off with the best high-concept Grammy night mega-setpiece you’ve never seen — a high-concept “Crazy in Love” that replaces the sampled horns with, like, every college horn player in the country — and then just keeps ratcheting that intensity up and down, production number after freshly invigorating production number, until you cry uncle… or mommy. It couldn’t have gone any better, her having to put #Beychella off for a year, until she dreamed this: It’s history’s most catching and delirious case of post-partum euphoria.