Beyonce presents the beauty of black culture
Image Credit: Netflix

About midway through Beyonce’s performance at Coachella last year, the booming, disembodied voice of motivational ad-libber DJ Khaled proclaimed that, henceforth, the music festival would be known as “Beychella.”

Unlike almost everything else Khaled pronounces in his music and on social media, the statement hardly felt hyperbolic: This was a career-defining performance for Beyonce, who became the first black woman to headline the festival since its debut in 1999. For nearly two hours, she and an astounding cast of dancers, singers and musicians wove together a beloved, unparalleled collection of hits and deep cuts, interpolated with music from the ‘Dirty South’ and civil rights activists like Nina Simone — served against the visuals and iconography of historically black colleges and universities.

A year later at Coachella, the memory of Beychella looms large; no accumulation of star-studded guest appearances or secret movie reveals in the desert from this year’s line-up can gin up the same excitement. Which is what makes the release of the Netflix documentary ‘Homecoming’ accompanied by the surprise release of a corresponding live album — even more of a coup. She may not be headlining this year, but we’re all going to pay attention and bow down anyway.

At almost 150 minutes, the majority of ‘Homecoming’ is what many viewers have already seen (and, perhaps, seen again and again) this time through a greater variety of angles and Instagram-like filters. The performances from the first and second weekends (denoted by the differing colour schemes and costume choices) are seamlessly intercut; this technique is particularly effective early on, when the performer’s outfits shift from all-yellow (Weekend 1) to all-pink (Weekend 2), just as ‘Crazy in Love’ drops an infectious sample of Juvenile’s ‘Back that Thang Up’.

The “intimate” and “candid” moments touted by Netflix are brief in comparison, appearing between long, uninterrupted musical segments from the show. Those moments will be enough to satisfy the overzealous Beyhive (though what Beyonce-related content satisfy the Beyhive?) and probably more casual fans and admirers, too. Montages reveal footage of the rehearsal process; performers practice, smile, make funny faces at the camera, gush about the experience of working on such a momentous event with perhaps the biggest star in the world. There are cameos from Jay Z and their eldest daughter, Blue Ivy, who sings ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’.

There’s Beyonce, in voice-over (which is mostly how we hear her voice in these segments), talking about trying to balance family and getting in shape after the birth of her twins. (Her diet, which she describes as no bread, carbs, dairy, sugar, meat, fish or alcohol... sounds extreme and not at all fun.)

As with the film ‘Lemonade’, which included a Malcolm X audio clip, the singer puts herself directly in conversation with voices from black American history. The sage words of Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde, W.E.B. DuBois, Toni Morrison and others sprinkle ‘Homecoming’ with inspiration. The overarching theme here is ostensibly education: Beyonce schools her audience on the beauty of black culture, yes, but also on the importance of preserving and encouraging the legacy of historically black colleges and universities, which she stresses throughout the film.

Above all, ‘Homecoming’ is about Beyonce, who served as the writer, director and an executive producer, asserting, yet again, her power and control. In part because of preconceived notions about what it means to be a pop star and a black woman, questions around her claims to authorship of her own music and image have always lingered closely behind. It doesn’t help that she has usually chosen to let the work speak for itself, avoiding interviews that rise above surface-level promotion — not a bad thing for an artist to do, to be sure, though it allows plenty of room for doubters to deny her credit.

“Homecoming” reinforces the idea that BeyoncE the performer is also BeyoncE the creator. In voice-over, she speaks of the weeks spent in preparation. In footage, she oversees the music and dance rehearsals and advises on the visuals. At one point, she politely but forcefully communicates to her team that she’s not getting what she wants — it’s “janky” and “not translating,” she says, bluntly.

It’s Beyonce exactly as she wants us to see her and has always wanted us to see her: as a perfectionist, and as the hardest-working person in show business. “I definitely pushed myself further than I knew I could,” she says, as we watch footage of her sweating it out profusely.

“I will never, never push myself that far again,” she adds, with a chuckle: a chuckle that suggests Beyonce — who, two decades in, keeps finding new ways to set the bar higher — can’t convince even herself that such a thing could possibly be true.

Don’t miss it!

‘Homecoming’ is now streaming on Netflix.