She might ride resplendent atop a not-so-pale horse on the album cover, but her hive arrived at my local cineplex on foot to see Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé. No small number were decked out in chromatic accoutrement: silver cowboy vests accented by glittering tassels; Western boots with enough gleam to dangle off Cuban links; jackets like various interstellar landing gears. Say what you will, the swarm comes correct or not at all. (Dollars and dedicated Bs never show up on CP time.)
Folks cheered before, during, and after the flick’s opening—wherein Mrs. Irreplaceable reports onstage not by gallop but via covert service elevator. For the first few minutes of the movie, she stares straight at the camera like a late 1960s songstress—her focus fixed not only on those in her immediate view, but on the crowd beyond it, the ones spread dotingly across cities, states, and national borders. This is where the charm of the work is embedded, in that delicate dance between performer and devotee. This being the fifth film she’s helmed, the lowdown on Beyoncé the Auteur is that no matter where her cinematic works start, in one way or another, they always end up being about how the music came to be. What makes Renaissance lift off isn’t just the range of answers she gives to this same query but the truth of whom she’s directing those answers to.
Renaissance arrives in the wake of a pop-star-to-video groundswell, stirred most recently (and most lucratively) by acoustic monarch Taylor Swift. There are commonalities between these two pillars of the American recording industry; each of their most recent creations is compelled by fervent, highly protective customers, and they’re both obliterating financial expectations. But where Swift’s doc is an extension of her campaign for economic reciprocity—prodding the boundaries not just of her skill or her fans’ commitment to her, but of the constraints of female pop stardom in the 21st century—Beyoncé’s goal is more elusive and all the more expansive. Renaissance: A Film isn’t about a single show, but a tour, an album, and an outlook to boot.
More than once in the film, footage from different concerts is stacked precisely in sequence, evoking a performance unbound by place and time. Musically, the movie picks up where the album left off, threading the needle between swaggering dance romps, Rollerblade funk, and trap barrages with aplomb. Repeatedly, Beyoncé looks to frame the whole display as an ode to Black queer fashion, movements, and sounds, not a careless excursion. She said, back in 2019, that she’s aiming to chart a through line, “connecting people who, at first glance, seem to be worlds apart,” by dint of her art. (The phrase “safe space” makes an early appearance in the movie.) It’s clear too that this mission expands beyond the idea of acceptance and into the realm of legacy. Explicitly and implicitly on Renaissance, B fills in just enough of her story to point an arrow from her heroes—Aretha, Prince, Diana Ross—to herself and the coming inheritors of her own work. It is in this pursuit that the film is focused as much on image building as it is on image deconstructing. At its core it’s art about the tolls and boons of both things. To understand the movie is to understand the tour is to understand her, as she chooses to currently meet us.
It takes only a few scenes to see that the film is as committed to showing how Renaissance and Beyoncé are both communal creations as it is to showing how she’s the lone connective tissue between her and her art. Stare at the arc of B’s career long enough and you’ll notice this isn’t exactly a new claim. Even dating back to the mid-aughts, she has never been tripped up by crediting her support system while emphasizing her autonomy. In 2004, when one reporter compared her upbringing to that of the Jackson 5, she swore, “This is not something anybody planned for me. I had the help of my family, I don’t do it all by myself, but I write my songs. I write my treatments. I help with my clothes. Anybody who, every time they’re seen, they’re right—it’s not other people. You can’t be that consistent without the artist being involved.”
In the film, she maintains this same careful balance by introducing and celebrating all of the stakeholders on the Renaissance tour. Set designers, sound engineers, pregnant trumpeters, and preteen dance prodigies are given tender portraits throughout the first few acts. Even while crediting her team, B has no hesitancy about showing her work. The physical tolls of her stagecraft (torn ligaments, respiratory distress, chronic travel fatigue) are juxtaposed with the mental costs (endless prep work, parental longing, the banal female ritual of having to prove to less qualified men that “this bitch will not give up”). At her most self-laudatory, Beyoncé is likewise quick to link her ascent to her upbringing (particularly to her mother and Uncle Jonny, the man responsible for introducing her to dance music and other outlets of Black queer expression) to explain where she is by embracing where she was.
This doesn’t change the autobiographical limitations of the form. You can’t untether Renaissance from the (unfair) criticism Beyoncé’s received about crediting songwriters. From the moment she secured a space in the music industry, she has talked about finding balance between her art and her personal life, only to give all of herself to her art again, and again, and again. Even while sketching the main strokes of her come-up, B eschews the tedious facts of prodigy formation: the training camps her father put her through each summer break, the Houston talent show circuit that she climbed out of, the grit and dollars and love that boosted her just high enough for her to catch flight. It would be disingenuous at this stage of her singular career to question Beyoncé’s authenticity in a project like this; she’s got way too much money to be doing anything she doesn’t want to or make anything she doesn’t care about.
What makes Renaissance so compelling, comforting, and dare we say confounding is how it strips away the myth, piece by piece, while building it up even more. How the biggest pop star of our era bears the exact amount of her shadow that she wants to. You don’t get all of her. You don’t need to. It’s an arresting image that looks not toward the slippery promises of tomorrow, but at the sublime, encompassing, and mystifying feeling shared between audience and master artist today. That’s no small thing. This kind of love is big, messy, resilient business. B might’ve cleared liftoff ages ago, but there’s no getting higher than this.