VERDICT: More a retrospective documentary than a traditional concert film, this souvenir of Beyoncé’s recent smash tour will delight fans who want a peek behind the scenes even as those peeks occasionally distract from the artist’s extraordinary stagecraft.
It’s a fascinating coincidence that Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé is opening in theaters at the same time that Barbra Streisand’s memoir My Name Is Barbra is hitting bookstore shelves, as these two artists have more in common than the casual observer might notice. Both were young prodigies with powerful voices who realized early on that they knew what they wanted, and how they wanted it, and how to make it just right for themselves.
For both of them, that meant stepping behind the camera, but while Streisand took the helm of narrative productions like Yentl and The Mirror Has Two Faces, Beyoncé makes movies that spotlight her musical creations, whether they are conceptual pieces like Lemonade or Black Is King or concert films like Homecoming and her latest production.
Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé is really two films by Beyoncé, and while they don’t always work well in tandem, each individually pays tribute to Ms. Knowles-Carter’s extraordinary sense of showmanship and stagecraft.
Beyoncé makes it clear early on that this isn’t going to be a traditional performance film: whereas most concert films shoot one show (or, as in the case of the recently reissued Stop Making Sense, multiple shows edited to look like one), Renaissance hops around from city to city. Over the course of a single song (even within one sung line), Beyoncé and her backup dancers will wear a variety of outfits as the edits take us from performance to another. Presumably, a single audio track from one of those concerts is laid over the entire presentation of each song, and when the dancers are standing still as their wardrobes change, one is reminded of the “Daddy’s Song” number from the Monkees movie Head.
Watching the costumes on stage switch back and forth from silver Mylar to neon red to Pucci-inspired psychedelia makes for a thrilling visual flip-book, it also undercuts the sense of watching a fluid performance. When a guest musician like Kendrick Lamar or Megan Thee Stallion or Diana Ross shows up for a one-shot appearance, Renaissance is required to focus on a single concert sequence, a start-to-finish mood, and those moments are among the film’s most impactful.
And rather than present the Renaissance stage show as a complete and uninterrupted narrative, the documentary will cut away at the end of a song to provide a backstage look at how the tour came together and at the integral role Beyoncé played at each stage of its creation. Some of these vignettes are fascinating — we meet members of her dance crew who have emerged from the ballroom scene, there’s a brief glimpse of a reunion of original members of Destiny’s Child — but these insertions often slow down the momentum, the euphoria, and the adrenaline generated by a concert film that doesn’t take detours. Beyoncé effectively balanced onstage excitement with backstage preparation in Homecoming, but the two more often undercut rather than complement each other here.
Beyoncé offers several interviews about empowering women, and about her own tireless efforts to present the best show possible, but Renaissance speaks loudest when it presents the physical results of those efforts. The sight of trumpeter Crystal Torres — performing onstage in what appears to be her third trimester of pregnancy, proudly displaying her belly in a spangly stage costume — says more about female inclusivity and achievement and visibility than any backstage interview can. And is there anyone in 2023 — on the heels of Lemonade, and Homecoming, and Black Is King — watching a movie subtitled “ A Film by Beyoncé” without a clear understanding of just who is steering this ship?
The Renaissance tour was clearly an elaborate extravaganza of screens and smoke and platforms — Beyoncé mentions at one point that they had three stage set-ups, so that while one performance was taking place, construction was happening in the next two tour locations — and Renaissance captures that (Bey)hive of activity, both onstage and off-. Even if the concert sequences don’t completely do justice to the thrill of seeing this show in person, this documentary offers an in-depth souvenir of both the show itself and of this particular chapter in the ongoing saga of one of popular culture’s most intriguing, unpredictable, and powerful creators.