Saturday, April 20, 2019 2:13 am
Throughout Homecoming, the new Netflix documentary chronicling Beyoncé’s monumental performance at the 2018 Coachella music festival, quotes from distinguished black creatives and intellectuals appear at various points, serving as interstitial title cards between footage of the concert and its tireless gestation. They include WEB DuBois, Nina Simone, Toni Morrison and Reginald Lewis, suggesting not only Beyoncé’s reverence for her forerunners but, according to The Guardian of London, her own by-now-unequivocal stature in the pantheon of black American greatness.
The most potent of these quotes, however, the one most illustrative of the resplendent and genuinely paradigm-shifting show Beyoncé put on in Indio, comes from Audre Lorde. “Without community,” Lorde said in a speech delivered exactly 40 years ago, “there is no liberation.” Beyoncé, joined on stage by more than 200 performers, turns that soundbite into triumphant roar, crafting an experience whose emphasis on the whole – the masterfully synchronized and color-coordinated corps of dancers, back-up singers, majorettes, trumpet players, et al – gives it the feeling of visual, aural communion.
And yet, despite her willingness to share the stage, Beyoncé, as the London Guardian puts it, is the priestess, the ringleader, insistent on her authorship of this one-of-a-kind spectacle, which marked the first time a black woman had ever headlined Coachella. The writer, director and executive producer of Homecoming, which runs 137 minutes and was released in concert with a 40-song live album, Beyoncé has a way of reminding us of her unique ability to hold a crowd in the palm of her hand, to defy the trend toward cultural diffusion and force us to stand at attention.
She did it first in 2013, with the surprise drop of her eponymous visual album. Then again with Lemonade, for which I and countless others forsook our Saturday night plans to watch immediately, as though it were some kind of presidential fireside chat. Coachella 2018 was her hat-trick, and Homecoming, with its savvy structure and breakneck editing, is a joyful celebration of the performance, if not quite the look-behind-the-curtain one expects of the typical concert documentary.
This is, after all, Beyoncé, and her capacity for era-defining moments wouldn’t be what it is if she didn’t defend her right to privacy, to a room of her own. There’s no salacious backstage powwow with her dancers or simulations of oral sex on an Evian bottle, like Madonna in one of the all-time greats of the form, Truth or Dare. Nor is it the kind of scaled-back, cinéma vérité experience of Stop Making Sense, Jonathan Demme’s Talking Heads rockumentary. Homecoming is directed and performed with exacting precision, but it’s freewheeling too, its star favoring spliced and inventive arrangements of her hits, the totality of which make the film feel more like a pinnacle than a pilgrimage. Beyoncé speaks mostly in voiceover, maintaining a kind of phantom presence even in those rare moments of vulnerability, such as the revelations about her difficult pregnancy with twins, or her lifelong dream of attending an HBCU like her father. “My college was Destiny’s Child,” she says. “My college was traveling around the world, and life was my teacher.”
So Coachella, she explains, was the homecoming she never had, but also a paean to the rich culture and vibrant aesthetic of historically black colleges and universities, the insignia of which can be spotted on the bright yellow and pink hoodies worn by Beyoncé and her onstage battalion (the film brilliantly cross-cuts between Beyoncé’s two Coachella sets to create an almost kaleidoscopic effect, edited down to each gyration and stutter-step). And even with the relative sparsity of information about how the concept came together, Homecoming is, alongside the southern gothic feminism of Lemonade, Beyoncé’s grandest articulation yet of her artistic mission. It’s a mission so great, she looks to no less an authority than Maya Angelou to put it into words. “What I really want to do is be a representative of my race,” Angelou says over grainy rehearsal footage near the end of the documentary, in what was the last interview she gave before her death in 2014. “I know that when I’m finished doing what I’m sent here to do, I will be called home.”
Home, for Beyoncé, is the stage. It simply agrees with her, as does every light source, camera angle and audience member, many of whom are seen howling blissfully in the crowd, gobsmacked with pride and hero-worship. But Beyoncé, queen she may be, doesn’t ask us to bend the knee. Homecoming is about the collective. It’s about the experience of viral, transitory togetherness for which musical festivals are one of the last remaining conduits. Beyoncé lets us see as much of the sweat as she’s willing, and some will perhaps want more. But she’s less interested in unraveling the mythology than letting us plebeians revel in it.