At this point in American television culture, we all know what the phrase “Lifetime Original Movie” means. The women’s-interest basic cable channel has become, through years and years of dubious, vaseline-lensed programming, synonymous with glitz, schmaltz and syrupy greeting-card rhetoric. An in-house Lifetime production generally leads the viewer down one of two paths: the so-bad-it’s-good camp, classic-in-the-making (like the channel’s genuinely astonishing Donatella Versace biopic House of Versace in 2013, or this year’s remake of V.C. Andrew’s pulpy incest best seller Flowers in the Attic), or the so-bad-it’s-just-bad, exhibiting complete disregard for even the most basic of modern filmmaking standards, such as their recent, truly horrendous The Brittany Murphy Story. Based upon Brittany Murphy’s puzzling casting and strange, wooden acting (and very, very bad wigs), Lifetime’s decision to adapt the life of beloved ’90s R&B singer Aaliyah — who died in a plane crash after a video shoot in the Bahamas in 2001 — may seem like an odd one: We know that their stabs at serious storytelling tend to fall flat, and Aaliyah, whose fans (including this writer) remain very much dedicated to her memory, are definitely not going to stand for some half-assed, barely in-focus hackjob.
Black Twitter has been baying for blood since the project was announced earlier this year, and leading up to last night’s premiere the hashtags and sarcastic memes showed no sign of slowing. But also, let’s be serious, Lifetime might as well change their name to The Hatewatch Channel and their logo to the scream emoji, so it’s not like we weren’t all going to tune in to witness this potential train wreck firsthand. After about 20 minutes of internal debate, I hunkered down, fired up the DVR, said a silent prayer to Baby Girl, and dove in.
Aaliyah: Princess of R&B follows the jolting narrative style of all Lifetime biopics, i.e. jumping around from date to date with absolutely no internal logic or coherence whatsoever. We open with a precious, pint-sized Aaliyah Dana Haughton, age 10, getting her ass handed to her after singing a, frankly, smoking rendition of “My Funny Valentine” on Star Search in 1989. While her defeat is absent from the actual movie (which is weird since it’s viewable to all on YouTube) we’re quickly reassured that, even as a pre-teen, Aaliyah had her sights set on superstardom and the connections to back it up: Her uncle is Barry Hankerson, CEO of Blackground Records and manager to R. Kelly (foreshadowing!) and her aunt is soul legend Gladys Knight, who takes mini-Aaliyah with her to Vegas for a string of performances. While backstage with Gladys, apparently preparing some killer intergenerational R&B medley we’re sadly not privy to, Aaliyah receives her first poorly written platitude of the film, a screenwriting trope that rears its soft, misshapen head in just about every pivotal scene. “Pressure creates diamonds,” Gladys coos while striking Patented Diva Pose No. 58, “and we are flawless diamonds.”
This exchange is the first of many to illustrate Aaliyah’s fatal flaw — in attempting a sincere homage to an incredible talent cut short in her prime, but lacking the technical skill, creative vision or even funding to produce what could conventionally be called “a movie,” Lifetime has instead settled for the most boring, inane version of Aaliyah’s short life you could possibly commit to tape. More insight can be gleaned by lightly perusing her Wikipedia page, or even by watching one of the dozens of Behind the Music-style TV docs about the star. With casting seemingly executed via Craigslist (they shaved about 200 collective pounds off of Timbaland and Missy Elliott) and a bizarre lack of actual Aaliyah hits during the performance sequences (the first of which is teenage Aaliyah singing “My Perogative” by Bobby Brown at a high school talent show?), Aaliyah takes the singer’s memorable light vocal style and transforms it into a long, wet burp. Not cool.
That being said, between awkward dates with musical mentor/alleged husband/confirmed total creep R. Kelly (“You didn’t even look at me in the studio.” “You don’t have to look at the sun to know it’s shining.”) and awkward dates with Dame Dash (“A lion doesn’t have to roar to be a lion.”), Aaliyah’s fiery persona does manage to peek through somewhat, mostly in scenes where “the industry” is trying to force her to be something that she’s not: a “glam diva,” as one Jive Records executive puts it, or trying to shove her on another urban soundtrack when it’s clear to everyone in the room that Aaliyah is more that just a flash-in-the-pan female R&B artist. By the time the movie — excruciatingly — hobbles towards its inevitable conclusion (which is depicted, not by a sunny-yet-foreboding location shoot in the Bahamas, but a lackluster epilogue scroll against a New York City skyline) I did find myself slightly upset, both at the fact that Aaliyah is no longer with us and that I had just sat through this completely useless dramatization of her life. Baby Girl, you deserve so much better.