There’s a scene in "The Princess of
R&B" where rising star Aaliyah (Alexandra Shipp) is being fitted for a
"new image" makeover. She vetoes all the fancy gowns in her dressing
room, claiming they don’t fit her style, and in a huff tells mentor R. Kelly
(Cle Bennett), "[They’re] so far away from who I really am, people will
think I’m fake."
Unfortunately, the same can be said of
Lifetime’s controversial biopic of the beloved R&B singer, who died tragically in a plane
crash in 2001. The movie bears little resemblance to Aaliyah’s life and career,
and tells a dissatisfying story for fans as well as general audiences.
In many ways the project is a tale of
perseverance – not of Aaliyah herself, but of a TV network determined to deliver a movie by any means necessary. What started as
an attempt to cash in on the momentum of VH1’s wildly successful TLC biopic quickly
fell apart at the seams, with casting issues, challenges with music rights and
opposition from pretty much everyone close to the singer. But the team
persisted, beyond any reasonable sign that they should do so, and what we’re
left with is a picture that fails to do the singer justice or tell a moving
Here’s a look at some of what’s missing from
the film. Call it a review if you will, but it might be more fair to say it’s
an exploration of what makes a strong musical biopic, and why this one falls
"Now let me see you go back…" Aaliyah’s family succeeded in blocking the use of most of her
music for this project, and for obvious reasons this is one of the biggest
losses of the film. It’s the point at which most filmmakers would have thrown
in the towel or majorly changed course. Not Lifetime; they dug into the great
big box of forgotten Aaliyah covers and ballads and strung together a handful
of songs that no one really remembers Aaliyah singing. Recall the number she
performed at the ’98 Oscars? Me neither. Sadly this is a musical film that most
audiences won’t sing along to, because no matter what their favorite Aaliyah
hit is, chances are, it isn’t there.
Soul. Speaking of singing, there’s a
reason that the vocal stylings of lead actress Alexandra Shipp weren’t featured
in the trailers for this movie. Shipp is a bright and energetic actor, but
she’s also from Phoenix, and it shows. There’s a noticeable lack of soul in her
singing and speaking voice, and even in her movement, which is a far cry from
the Brooklyn-born, Detroit-raised Aaliyah. There are a few cringeworthy moments
as Shipp struggles to capture Aaliyah’s sound and personality.
Depth. There was a certain level of
mystery about Aaliyah’s image. This is a singer that covered her face with
sunglasses and hairstyles so often that it led to a widespread rumor about her
having a glass eye. (Remember that eye
patch from ‘One in a Million’?) She was a private person, so it’s unsurprising
that Lifetime’s biopic shares very little about the singer that one couldn’t
learn from Wikipedia, or that fans don’t already know. The movie plays sort of
like a clip reel of career highlights – getting her record deal, performances,
interviews, a few celebrity cameos. The story is based on journalist
Christopher John Farley’s biography Aaliyah:
More Than A Woman, which is also said to be a relatively shallow look at
the singer’s life. Still, if the goal of a good biopic is to give an in-depth
view of its subject, this one doesn’t succeed.
A Solid Cast. This isn’t
news. Audiences have been complaining about this cast at every step. Aside from
Shipp, who at least bears some physical resemblance to Aaliyah, most of the
cast doesn’t look anything like the people they were meant to portray, and
unfortunately their acting isn’t any more convincing. Especially with entertainers
like Missy Elliott, Timbaland and R. Kelly, whose styles and personas are specific
and familiar to the public, the inaccuracies are glaring. At times it’s like
watching a story entirely unrelated to Aaliyah, which makes sense in light of
the fact that her family and friends weren’t involved with the film.
A Complete Story Arc. The tragedy
of Aaliyah’s life is that it was cut so short. She had only three albums and
two film roles to her credit at the time of her death, and by all accounts was
just getting started. At 22 years old, she never got to live the kind of
eventful life that a biopic would typically warrant and for this reason, one could
argue that an Aaliyah biopic shouldn’t have been made in the first place.
Besides the singer’s short-lived marriage to R. Kelly, there simply isn’t
enough drama to sustain a feature film, and this one reaches to keep it
interesting. It plays up the idea of Aaliyah as a sweet, well-adjusted young
star that everyone seemed to love, but it’s a saccharine view of her life that
fails to give deeper insight into her personality and struggles. Without much
of a story to hinge on, the film dissolves into an abrupt and sentimental
ending that will leave most audiences unsatisfied.
To call the movie a disappointment would be
to assume that there were high hopes for it in the first place. Despite a solid
team behind the scenes, including veteran producer Debra Martin Chase, talk
show host Wendy Williams and casting director Tracy "Twinkie" Bird, the
project was beset with challenges from the beginning, which unfortunately it
wasn’t able to overcome.
"Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B"
premieres on Lifetime on Saturday, November 15.