Two Films by Beyoncé: Lemonade (2016) and Homecoming (2019)

There are, of course, many ways for a film to be musical. As a genre, the musical is a narrative form with singing (and often dancing), but then there are films that deal at a more basic level with the performance of music itself. Some of these (such as concert films) are easy to separate, but the music video can be a form of narrative expression, and several artists have in recent years extended this form to feature length, not least Beyoncé in her solo work. In many ways, her ‘visual album’ Lemonade is a narrative, and certainly the film that accompanied its release has a structure that uses poetic voiceover to link what might be considered discrete music videos into something approaching a cohesive whole. She followed this with a tour that Homecoming ostensibly documents, although it also presents the performances in extensive chunks.

Lemonade (2016)

I feel like I could do that thing of saying what this hour-long visual poem/musical album reminds me of — because there are clearly visual and cinematic cues here — but I don’t really feel equal to that at all. Instead, I’ll observe that to me Lemonade feels both intensely personal (it has two key credited directors in Beyoncé and Kahlil Joseph, alongside many co-directors, but this is an auteur work by Beyoncé more than anyone else) as well as being something of a catalogue of Black visual representations in many styles, from many eras and in many places. In the sense of it being personal, I mean not that it’s a capital-S Statement by Beyoncé about her own life (it may be, but that’s not really what makes it interesting to me), so much as an engagement with a history and dynamic of representation, racism, misogyny, artistic heritage, motherhood, feminism, et al., as refracted through her own personality and shared experiences. I’m probably not really putting this very well, so maybe I should say instead that I think it’s thrilling and wonderful, poetic in style (and interspersed with literal poetry), densely elliptical in its thematics (but maybe that’s just because it’s not aimed at me). It’s not a collection of music videos; it’s a film. And it’s wonderful.

Lemonade film posterCREDITS
Directors Beyoncé [as “Beyoncé Knowles-Carter”], Kahlil Joseph, Melina Matsoukas, Dikayl Rimmasch, Mark Romanek, Todd Tourso and Jonas Åkerlund; Writers Beyoncé and Warsan Shire; Cinematographers Khalik Allah, Pär Ekberg, Santiago Gonzalez, Chayse Irvin, Reed Morano, Dikayl Rimmasch and Malik Sayeed; Starring Beyoncé; Length 65 minutes.
Seen at home (download), London, Wednesday 27 April 2016 and Sunday 8 May 2016.

Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé (2019)

A record of Beyoncé’s two headline Coachella performances in 2018, interwoven with voices and quotes from prominent Black intellectuals and artists, and backstage snippets of the huge amount of preparation and training that went into this event. Clearly Beyoncé is drawing on a huge range of influences, not least the energetic dancers and musicians of historically black colleges and universities of the American South, hence the Greek letters in the title, and the design of the logo prominently displayed on the performers’ clothing — as, after all, Beyoncé here seems to be creating her own sorority (Beta Delta Kappa) for this ‘homecoming’ to the stage of an historically white-dominated music festival.

Her huge phalanx of talented performers are largely seen on the pyramidal stage which forms the foundation of the whole spectacle — and I’d say it looks cool, which it undoubtedly is, but it’s likely there’s some deeper significance there as well, perhaps a hint at the masonic origins of the (historically white, and usually fairly exclusionary) Greek-lettered fraternities and sororities, or a nod towards her Egyptian forebears as a gesture towards an almost imperial dominion. After all, she also has huge lit-up letters forming the word DIVA, which are illuminated only for a very short period while she’s singing that song, and suggest a playful self-critique while also very clearly being a loud signal that no one should be messing with her.

There are all these kinds of things, a dense network of allusions and references, running through her performance, and it would be beyond me to try and understand (or even list) them all, but needless to say, it’s a glorious and sustaining piece of work.

Homecoming film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Beyoncé [as “Beyoncé Knowles-Carter”]; Cinematographers Mark Ritchie; Starring Beyoncé; Length 137 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Thursday 18 April 2019.

Kill Your Darlings (2013)

I have no particular warmth towards or affection for the Beat Generation — a masculine group known best for the writers Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, and the poet Allen Ginsberg, all of whom are represented in this new film — though I don’t dispute that some excellent prose and poetry did come from that group, better surely than anything I could ever hope to craft. It’s just that as a group of people at a particular time and place, they’ve been excessively mythologised over the years, rather eliding some of the more self-regarding macho posturing to which some were prone. That they were quite literally angry young men is clear from this new film, though, which tries to strip away some of the hero-worship. It also affords greater acting range to Daniel Radcliffe, still best known for his role in the Harry Potter films. He is no doubt likely to be thus linked for some time yet, though with this film and other recent odd acting choices (for example, the British TV series A Young Doctor’s Notebook, based on the works of Mikhail Bulgakov) his career path may yet take him nearer someone like Johnny Depp, who effaced his early teen heartthrob status with left-field film roles.

It is the young Allen Ginsberg (played by Radcliffe) who is at the heart of Kill Your Darlings, along with the lesser known figure of Lucien Carr, who was not himself an author but is revealed to be something of a lightning rod around whom the Beats coalesced. Played by Dane DeHaan as a devilish blond-haired rake somewhat akin to a young Leo DiCaprio, Carr unites the nerdy and cossetted Ginsberg with ex-Navy man Kerouac and drug-addled Burroughs (a wonderful turn by Ben Foster, capturing Burroughs’ distinctively nasal delivery, not to mention his privileged upbringing, very well). Scenes unfold in a series of gloomily muted wartime-era sets, flitting between the campus of Columbia University (where they all studied) and the speakeasy-like jazz clubs of the Downtown, linked by an animated line working its way down a period subway map.

The bulk of the film’s second half, though, is chiefly concerned with a murder, set up by the film’s opening images. Carr has moved to New York, apparently to escape a relationship with his obsessive former teacher David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), but the latter has followed him and hangs around expectantly. It is left ambiguous as to how the eventual crime played out, about Carr’s motives and the pair’s history, though not the nature of their relationship, as Carr here is clearly not the heterosexual target of aggression that he pleaded in his defence, using homophobic laws of the era. Then again, if attitudes to homosexuality were quite different back then, the group shown here are relatively liberated, passionately engaged in the early stages of their artistic creativeness (generally conveyed through montage, of course — watching a person sit and write in real-time is rather too challenging for most films — though it still pains me to see their experiments with cut-up fiction, given it involves ripping apart books and pinning phrases to the wall). However, even at this stage, we see Ginsberg trying to pull away from the violent consequences of this energy (which were hardly the first; Burroughs too had his own, later, murder conviction).

If the film seems smitten with its protagonists and their bohemian allure at times, then it’s not always so, and like the relationship between Carr and Kammerer, things get complicated. The film is shot through with darkness (both literal — it is set during a time of war, after all — and figurative), lurching at times frenetically between different tonal registers, but anchored by the fine performances from Radcliffe and DeHaan. There are moments that ring a bit false — Carr jumping on a library table feels too uncomfortably like Dead Poets Society — but when the film gets its tone right, it feels invigorating.

Kill Your Darlings film posterCREDITS
Director John Krokidas; Writer Krokidas and Austin Bunn; Cinematographer Reed Morano; Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan, Michael C. Hall; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Monday 9 December 2013.