Pop mega-star Beyonce Knowles’ hypothetically intimate “documentary” “Life Is a But a Dream” is equal parts vanity project and calculated act of image control. The only thing revealed by the film — co-directed, co-written and co-executive produced by Beyonce herself — is a narcissistic inability to give up that desire for control.
The conflict Knowles brings to the project is evident throughout: She clearly wants to make (and possibly even thinks she is making) a personal and candid film, but she (completely understandably) values her privacy and remarks multiple times about her belief that the public’s interest in an artist should be about the art and not the artist’s personal life.
From that perspective, “Life Is a But a Dream” plays like Beyonce’s response to tabloid culture. She knows that her fans — and people simply obsessed with celebrity gossip — are interested in peeking behind the celebrity curtain, so she’s going to show them exactly what she wants them to see, and nothing more.
It turns out she doesn’t want anyone to see very much at all.
“Life Is But a Dream” is cobbled together from several different sources: concert and performance footage from the “Back to Business” tour, 2011 Billboard Music Awards and 2011 MTV Video Music Awards; behind the scenes footage from the preparations for those performances; a talking head interview with documentarian Ilan Benatar; very limited home movie footage from Knowles’ childhood, young adulthood and married life with fellow superstar Jay-Z; and Knowles’ own video diaries captured on her computer’s web cam.
Every single second feels painstakingly chosen for an air of faux-intimacy. Knowles has no intention on sharing the inner workings of her marriage or family life. The film opens with her decision to sever the professional relationship with her manager father, but Knowles remains too guarded to delve into specifics or allow it to be shown as anything other than an entirely positive step toward her own independence (a key talking point throughout).
Jay-Z’s voice is practically never even heard, although we are permitted to see a rather adorable impromptu duet between the couple on Coldplay’s “Yellow” and Beyonce’s heartfelt birthday toast from his 37th birthday in 2006. The film’s much ballyhooed chronicle of Knowles’ pregnancy with her first child Blue Ivy is nothing more than platitudes about her excitement to become a mother. Fair enough, keep what’s personal personal.
More inexplicable is the almost equally glossed-over treatment her professional life receives. Whenever hints of a performance-related problem crop up — limited rehearsal time before the Billboard awards because the crew was kicked out of the space; frustrations over lighting demands for the concert — it’s immediately resolved without mention. There must be something genuine in the level of work and dedication that goes into any one of Knowles’ concerts, but you wouldn’t know it from this.
Instead, “Life Is But a Dream” is dominated by the shallow interview and Knowles’ vaguely contrived video diaries. Even the very brief moments when she does include something painful or difficult — the relationship with her father, her first pregnancy resulting in a miscarriage — it’s presented as something so personal she can’t fully share it, which only raises the question of why even make such a flimsy portrait in the first place.