Reaction to the movie by Aaliyah’s fanbase, not to mention critics, has been unkind in the extreme. It’s not difficult to see why. First and foremost, though much has been made of it, the lack of physical resemblance between the actors and the real-life figures they’re portraying is the least of the film’s problems. Casting doppelgangers doesn’t always result in a good movie. No, Alexandra Shipp doesn’t really evoke the late R&B star—neither in looks or sound (she sings Aaliyah’s songs herself). The real fault lies in the writing. Michael Elliot is credited with the teleplay, making him an easy target of criticism. But it’s hard to know exactly who to blame, with director Bradley Walsh and executive producer Wendy Williams also making the shortlist. Beginning with Aaliyah’s childhood appearance on Star Search and ending just before her final trip to the Bahamas, the film feels like a rough draft.
As a result of Aaliyah’s family not being on board with the project, most of her biggest hits are not included since the rights couldn’t be secured. Spotlighting Shipp, as Aaliyah, struggling to sound meaningful while singing the inexplicably Oscar-nominated “Journey to the Past” (which didn’t even dent the Billboard Hot 100) doesn’t convey Aaliyah’s allure as a performer and vocalist. Her relationship with R. Kelly (Clé Bennett), who mentored her early on while writing and producing her debut album (released in 1994), is portrayed with less subtlety than the average soap opera. Their alleged illegal marriage, when Aaliyah was just 15 years old, is dealt with in bluntly matter-of-fact terms. The film makes no real point about it, other than to offer a bare bones dramatization of a confrontation between the “newlyweds” and Aaliyah’s parents. The laughably stilted dialogue typifies the filmmakers’ approach. It often feels like the shooting script was a work-in-progress that no one got around to revising.
The saving grace of Lionsgate’s DVD edition of Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B is the inclusion of the documentary Beyond the Headlines: Aaliyah, which aired on Lifetime following the biopic. Though rather artlessly assembled, the program tells Aaliyah’s story far more engagingly than the movie. Here we at least get to see and hear the real deal. It may not be worth the purchase price of the DVD, but even in its Behind the Music-style genericness the doc does more to honor Aaliyah’s legacy than the film.
Images: Christos Kalohoridis