by Ken Bakely
With an exact and thorough precision befitting of its star and director, Homecoming exemplifies what a concert film should be, capturing a musical performance with a technical and artistic skill that immerses viewers in the occasion and makes the scene look like the best place in the world. Beyoncé’s acclaimed 2018 headlining act at Coachella is brought to us in full here – cut together from both performances at the festival – interspersed with behind-the-scenes footage of the indelible concert’s development and rehearsal. A bevy of cameras capture every conceivable angle, moving up, down, left, and right. Drone shots pull through the crowd of ecstatic attendees. The cavernous set design – with stadium-style metal bleachers on which background singers, dancers, and musicians are stationed – reaches into the night sky. Beyoncé and the ensemble are alternately clad in gold or magenta costumes, depending on which of the two concerts are being featured at a given instance. And yet, the film gives the illusion of an act so overwhelmingly present, aware, and alive that you’d almost believe that this was all one continuous moment in time; every movement so seamless and exact that not even sudden changes in color scheme can break the spell of us absorbing this experience in one continuous slew of astonishment.
The performance’s theme was a tribute to historically black colleges and universities: many of the performers were students attending, or alumni of, HBCUs, and the set list’s musical arrangement was modeled after the instrumentation of university marching bands. Non-concert sequences further the celebration of African-American culture and history. References to famous black artists – in the form of quotes, images, and sound bites – bookend the transitions to and from the documentary clips, augmenting those featured in the show itself. Beyoncé contextualizes each of these snippets as representative of the people and ideas that have influenced her, allowing us to have a genuine appreciation of the personal significance that this performance carried. Certainly, Beyoncé’s reputation as someone simultaneously ubiquitous yet still carefully enigmatic is enforced here, but Homecoming allows us an opportunity to see a work that externalizes the otherwise internal process of a prominent figure drawing from vast fields of inspiration to form their own landmark contributions. It’s a bold conceptualization of what it means to depict an artist at work, but never one that gets distracted or feels the need to overexplain. Most of this comes off as inherent to the material – in other words, the documentary stuff works not because it adds new context, but simply elaborates on what was already extant in the concert itself.
This is an embarrassment of riches, considering how the dynamism of the concert footage alone puts it alongside the genre’s very best achievements. Just about every frame feels right to us on some foundational level, with a note-perfect intuition in editing and shot selection capturing a keen sense of where one’s sight would naturally go in real time. Nothing about the presentation itself is particularly showy (with the exception of some out-of-place, overly Instagram-like video filters over the rehearsal scenes), letting the actual events carry all the spectacle. Indeed, perhaps Homecoming functions best if it’s considered Beyoncé’s thesis on which she begins to speculate on the legacy she’s working to build. Singing songs from the Destiny’s Child era (performed with her former bandmates) to Lemonade, she automatically places us in a position to consider both her diversity of musical style and the continual sense of mystery and control that she wields over her next moves as a performer, aware that her status means she can release new projects without promotion or hype. The film operates like a time capsule when watching it, sealed within its time; a superb way to preserve Beychella in perpetuity. But reflection brings a far grander scope to the proceedings: though Beyoncé may hold her public image at more of an arm’s length than many celebrities in the social media age, it’s hard to imagine anyone more cognizant of the cultural world she continues to construct. She has made a movie of great panoptic complexity, where exhaustive documentation meets a more individualistic philosophizing.