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Have you seen Homecoming yet? Netflix has yet to reveal viewing figures for Beyoncé’s exhilarating, self-directed concert documentary, but by the measure of feverish social media volume, it feels like the streaming event of 2019 so far. Since it debuted on the platform last week, the internet has been thick with analysis and awed gushing over the 137-minute celebration of the R&B titan’s landmark 2018 Coachella set: not just from Twitter minions, but the likes of Michelle Obama and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Last week, it was reported that Homecoming is the first of three specials Beyoncé will deliver to Netflix in a $60m (£46m) deal, the company having trounced the offer of her previous television partner, HBO.
You’d have to go back quite a way to find a concert doc that has taken on this level of pop-cultural cachet. Black musicians, in particular, have traditionally got short shrift in the genre, so it’s apt that Homecoming hits screens just before Sydney Pollack’s long-shelved, shiver-inducing Aretha Franklin gospel session Amazing Grace at last comes to cinemas. (Anyone buzzing from Homecoming’s blast of pop and political energies, meanwhile, should get to iTunes for Wattstax, a frenzied, riveting preservation of the Stax soul label’s 1973 benefit concert.)
As pure diva study, perhaps the closest precedent is Madonna’s wickedly funny, preening tour diary In Bed With Madonna, woefully unavailable on any UK streaming outlet. Back in the mists of 1991, it earned a spell as the highest-grossing documentary of all time in cinemas, not a milestone that translates easily to Netflixese. Yet they’re worth comparing as brash essays in female performance power, in a branch of cinema overwhelmingly dominated by male auteurs and musicians – Scorsese turning his camera on the Rolling Stones, for example, or Jonathan Demme on Talking Heads.
Indeed, you can draw a wavy line directly from Demme to Beyoncé: the former revolutionised the rock-doc game in 1984 with his electrifying, surreally cinematic Stop Making Sense (on the BFI Player), before entering the Netflix pop sphere in 2016 with what turned out to be his last film, Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids. A fluorescent kick even if your interest in Timberlake is marginal, it was well received without approaching anything like Homecoming levels of hype.
Did that film’s classy, arty veneer – light years removed from the plastic finish of concert films churned out for pop peers such as Katy Perry and Justin Bieber – play any part in persuading Queen Bey to take the Netflix route? The global, fast-access spontaneity of Netflix’s streaming model is ideally aligned with the tactics of a star who has built her later career on the power of surprise and short notice. Having jolted the record industry with her mastery of the sudden album drop, Beyoncé treated Homecoming as a similar near-overnight attack, entirely on her own micro-managed terms. It was cryptically announced just 10 days before it descended (with an accompanying surprise album in tow, naturally) on Netflix menus.
By the time you read this, the Beyoncé faithful will be on their hundredth stream, but non-Beylievers should check out Homecoming, too: it’s unabashedly indulgent at nearly two-and-a-half hours, but conveys a more tactile, communal sense of her star magnetism than you might glean from her mirror-sheen recordings.
It’s in another realm from Life Is But a Dream, the Beyoncé-directed self-portrait from 2013, which has been largely, and not unjustly, forgotten. Bar some snappy, glitzy stage footage, the HBO-produced doc is weighed down with airy, sophomoric backstage musings on feelings and finding one’s path. To stream that film (available, none too cheaply, on iTunes) and Homecoming back-to-back is a fascinating study in celebrity image-tweaking and legend-making. Between them, you see all the construction work that has gone into making Beyoncé, to all intents and purposes, a glittering, thrashing, flesh-and-blood monument – and she’s no less imposing for it.
Source: The Guardian
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