On Saturday, US cable network Lifetime premiered its biopic of Aaliyah Dana Haughton, the New York-born R&B singer tragically killed in a plane crash in August 2001, aged just 22. Before this 85-minute TV movie was even made, it had met with resistance from the late star’s family, who hired a lawyer in a bid to get the production blocked. After it aired, Aaliyah: Princess Of R&B proved just as controversial, with Aaliyah’s former producer Timbaland branding it “bullshit” and fans taking to Twitter to voice their disapproval at everything from the film’s script to its acting to its dance scenes.
Sadly, Aaliyah: Princess Of R&B is every bit as terrible as they’re all saying – and here are the main reasons why.
The casting is hardly ‘One In A Million’
At times, the film’s star Alexandra Shipp manages to pass for Aaliyah – but only from a distance, while rocking a pair of 90s-style shades. Up close, she looks nothing like the late chanteuse, and doesn’t sing or dance like her, either. To be fair to Shipp, she only took on the role after original star Zendaya dropped out, but this is still a flat and unconvincing depiction of an influential and still popular artist; during the performance scenes, Shipp captures as much of Aaliyah’s natural stage presence as a blurry gif could.
The film keeps jumping ‘Back And Forth’
OK, not so much back… just forth, forth and forth again. Aaliyah packed a lot into her tragically short life, but Princess Of R&B is so keen to get to the finish mark, it doesn’t let us see it. One minute it’s 1989 and Aaliyah is getting a pep talk from Auntie Gladys (Knight, that is), the next it’s 1991 and she’s signing a record deal. One minute she’s discussing the possibility of recording a film theme; the next she’s coming off stage after singing at the Oscars. One minute she’s having a meeting about starring in a high-profile movie, the next she’s walking the red carpet at the Romeo Must Die premiere. Because it rushes so much, the film fails to linger long enough on the pivotal moments in Aaliyah’s incredibly impressive career.
The writer really needed to ‘Try Again’
The film’s dialogue makes us cringe as it supplies historical context and music industry facts with all the subtlety of a punch in the face. “Be myself in front of R Kelly?” Aaliyah gasps at one point. “He’s only, like, the King of R&B right now.” In case we have failed to grasp just how pre-eminent Robert Sylvester Kelly was at the time, the man himself then chips in with: “I’m only the hottest writer-producer in the game right now.” Later in the film, Aaliyah tries to reassure her then boyfriend, Damon Dash, with a laboured metaphor that a hip young woman from Brooklyn would never ever use : “A lion doesn’t have to roar to be a lion. Even when he purrs, the whole jungle knows he’s the king.” Ouch.
Were the producers afraid to ‘Rock The Boat’?
R Kelly reportedly married Aaliyah when she was just 15, a disturbing incident the film’s executive producer, Wendy Williams, reckons Princess Of R&B handles in a “tasteful” way. A more accurate description might be: “They gloss over it.” Kelly is seen getting a telling off from his underage bride’s parents, but after that he’s essentially let off the hook, and there’s no suggestion the pair ever did anything more unsavoury together than get to second base.
The whole thing totally fails to show why Aaliyah was ‘More Than A Woman’
In her prime, Aaliyah made singing and dancing seem effortless, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t work to hone her craft. Because the film never really shows Aaliyah having to sweat for anything – her multi-platinum albums, her movie roles, her fancy New York apartment – it’s hard to care whenever she achieves something remarkable. Princess of R&B can’t even rely on Aaliyah’s forward-thinking R&B tunes to save it; the singer’s family declined to license her biggest hits, so the performance scenes are fudged with Shipp singing Bobby Brown’s ‘My Prerogative’, Vanessa Williams’ ‘Save The Best For Last’ and a couple of dull covers of Aaliyah’s own songs. It all adds up to a terrible missed opportunity – and most upsettingly of all, Lifetime is now working on a biopic of another departed R&B icon, Whitney Houston.