I can’t believe I was worried I would fall asleep. It had been sixteen months since the Renaissance album dropped, 67 days since I’d seen Beyoncé Knowles-Carter perform it on tour, and twelve hours into a long day. All that time had passed, and the joy of Renaissance seemed to be wearing off for me, particularly as fans began questioning the release of Beyoncé’s new concert documentary in Israel. Rather than eagerly looking forward to experiencing the music in another format, I feared that I wouldn’t last the two hours and 48 minutes of the film. But then somebody walked into the AMC theater for a showing of Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé chanting “Rena-rena-rena-rena-renaissance!,” and every notion of exhaustion flew out the window.
As in Beyoncé’s previous documentaries Beyoncé: Life Is But a Dream and Homecoming, Renaissance splices performance footage with home videos, interviews, and behind-the-scenes clips of meetings and rehearsals to paint a picture of just how much work went into putting the show together. We see Beyoncé focused yet exhausted, in rehearsals and planning meetings, recovering from knee surgery, fighting sinus infections, and addressing seemingly minute details, such as when she discusses the positioning of an inflatable figure’s fingers and personally looks up specific equipment she wants when an employee tries to reject her request. As even casual fans understand by now, Beyoncé has a hand in every aspect of her work, making changes and improvements until the very last show. There are also segments dedicated to the queer people of color at the heart of the Renaissance album and tour: we hear from legendary ballroom commentator Kevin JZ Prodigy, ballroom dancers Honey Balenciaga and Carlos Irizarry, and family members discussing Beyoncé’s uncle Johnny.
More revelatory were clips of Beyoncé as a mother. Her children, Blue Ivy, Rumi, and Sir, were more present in the film than her husband, Jay-Z, was. We see the kids dance backstage as they watch their mother on monitors, bustle around large stadiums, and sleep on private jets. Her eldest child, eleven-year-old Blue Ivy, is a vocal presence in rehearsals and meetings. In one of my favorite scenes, as Beyoncé discusses possibly cutting “Diva” from the set list, Blue Ivy interjects, insisting that the song needs to stay. She’s so passionate with her pleas that Beyoncé finally lovingly shushes her: “Baby, I appreciate your opinion, but you can’t cut people off.” (I’m personally thankful to Blue Ivy for helping keep “Diva” on the set list and giving us the best dance break of the tour.) When Blue Ivy made her stage-performance debut during the Paris show, it was supposed to be a onetime deal. But after catching wind of online criticism about her restrained movements in what was her first time dancing in front of thousands of people, the eleven-year-old pushed to keep performing for the rest of the tour. The casual cruelty of the internet is a hard lesson to learn, especially at eleven, and Beyoncé’s frustration at being unable to protect her daughter from it is palpable.
Those moments with her children are some of the most novel and endearing behind-the-scenes clips in the film. Otherwise, it’s difficult to lose one’s awareness that even as other extra footage projects a sense of relatability, it has still been curated, chosen, and edited by Beyoncé (who wrote, directed, and produced the film) with an intentionality that sometimes undermines the authenticity it aims to convey. So, as much as I appreciate these careful glimpses into Beyoncé’s life and process, the film’s real highlights are the actual tour performances. I’d seen Renaissance live for the tour’s first night in Houston and had the time of my life dancing in the nosebleeds, but that experience doesn’t compare to seeing the tour how Beyoncé wants us to see it, up close and in high definition. Beyoncé’s mastery of her craft is on full display as we behold every seamless outfit transition, see each lip snarl as she and her dancers hit their steps, and hear every single note clearly.
In voice-overs and confessional interviews, Beyoncé talks about losing herself in her performance and feeling so free onstage that she can’t be entirely responsible for what that version of her does. It’s that version of her, Beyoncé the performer, that I enjoy the most. That kind of freedom she exhibits is contagious. Watching her masterpiece of a show, I quickly went from worrying I’d fall asleep to singing along and actively fighting the urge to jump up and dance. It’s so easy to get swept up in Beyoncé’s energy and narrative, it can almost silence the questions I have about the messaging of her songs.
In the film’s end credits, Beyoncé debuted a new song, “My House,” an aggressive anthem that I’ve already worn out with endless replays. But when the choir on the song declares that Renaissance is a revolution, I want to know, What revolution? For whom and for what? These questions have arisen as some of Beyoncé’s fans have started questioning her film’s release in Israel and her silence as the civilian death toll in Gaza rises. I wonder about the wisdom and fairness of seeking political advocacy from artists and celebrities, but when an artist dances on top of sunken police cars, gives shout-outs to activists like Malcom X, creates an album inspired by queer Black liberation, and sings about freedom and revolution, she inevitably invites those questions and criticisms.
A common refrain of Renaissance is a sense of freedom. I felt that freedom when I danced in NRG Stadium and sang along in my AMC seat, but outside those spaces, and without clear definitions, the freedom at the heart of the film feels limited. As Renaissance reaffirms Beyoncé’s status as one of the best performers in the world, she seems to have reached a level of unapologetic liberation that is nearly untouchable. At one point, Beyoncé even declares that she simply has “nothing to prove to anyone at this point.” If she has nothing to prove to anyone else, maybe she can at least live up to her own messaging.