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If readers recall, there was a story covered in the Music News Roundup back in August about a movie being made about the late singer Aaliyah Haughton. In the article, it was mentioned that the film was surrounded in controversy due to the singer’s family’s disapproval of the film’s creation and the article pondered whether the movie could rise above its challenges to silence the critics. Well, that question was answered last Saturday when Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B premiered on Lifetime.
The film was supposed to give fans a look at the very private singer’s journey to fame. The film opens with Aaliyah singing for Star Search and then flashes forward to her as a young teenager, singing Bobby Brown’s ‘My Prerogative’ and getting her record deal. The next part of the film is its lengthiest, with Aaliyah meeting R. Kelly. Viewers watched the buildup of a relationship between the two, culminating in their marriage, and then their subsequent breakup after the 15-year-old singer’s parents freaked out about her marriage to the 27-year-old Kelly.
The movie also takes viewers through her first meeting with Timbaland and Missy, and the negotiation of her first music deal. Shortly after this, she meets Dame Dash and viewers see their relationship bloom. The movie ends abruptly with Aaliyah leaving for The Bahamas and the camera pointing to the sky where text tells the viewer she died in a plane crash on the way back to the States.
Here’s the thing about this movie: It should have been scrapped as soon the production team knew they were not going to be able to work out a deal with Aaliyah’s family. Without input from them or the key people in Aaliyah’s life, the production team was unable to make a movie of substance or that gave fans any new insight into the singer’s life.
What resulted instead was a shallow, limited and misdirected adaption based on an unauthorized biography, which resulted in the film having several glaring shortcomings.
First, the movie focused a disproportionate amount of time on Aaliyah’s love relationships, especially her relationship with R. Kelly. There are small slivers of the movie where viewers can see Aaliyah work or spend time with friends and family, but the rest of the time focuses on her relationships with men.
While there was limited information to work, there was enough information about the singer’s life to not have to focus on her relationships with men and completely downplay or ignore the other aspects of her life.
Take, for example, her friendships. If you let the movie tell it, Aaliyah only had one friend whom she rarely ever saw. Otherwise, she was with R. Kelly, Dame Dash, or her family.
Missy Elliott and Timbaland are only seen in the movie once, when Aaliyah goes to the studio to meet them, which is absolutely ridiculous considering the important roles they played in her music career and how close they were as friends.
Even though these appearances were short, however, Timbaland and Missy were lucky to be portrayed in the project at all. Other members of the entourage like Ginuwine and Magoo were left out of the movie entirely.
Also, no other friends are shown – including Kidada Jones or even Monica, who is featured heavily in the special Lifetime aired immediately following the credits.
The singer’s relationship with her family also doesn’t get the treatment it deserves. The parents are portrayed as loving and protective, but aside from a few special moments, such as when Aaliyah’s father tries to talk to her after breaking her up with R. Kelly, the portrayal of their family relationship lacks the depth it needs to not come off like a typical Tyler Perry movie.
However, the really offensive part is the glossing over of the relationship between Aaliyah and her brother. He is seen a few times during the movie, but viewers never get the opportunity to see how close the two were.
Another side effect of the movie’s heavy focus on the singer’s relationship with R. Kelly is the viewers don’t see Aaliyah work after the first half hour of the movie. The performances and studio recordings are replaced with board meetings where viewers see Aaliyah taking the driver’s seat in her career and heading important negotiations (one of the few upsides of the movie). However, these scenes are primarily there to tell viewers what year it is.
While the Haughton family owns the rights to most of her music and refused to license it for the movie, there were other ways producers could have shown Aaliyah working. Aaliyah could’ve been shown working with Missy and Timbaland in the studio, to see how she came up with the inspiration for her songs. Even if recreating scenes from the movies she worked on was impossible, viewers could have at least seen her on set. Not taking time to show these aspects of Aaliyah’s world made her life seem one-dimensional.
Another issue the movie ran into was the lack of growth shown in Aaliyah throughout the movie. The movie follows the young singer over 12 years of her life, and viewers do not really see her grow in significant ways. To be fair, some of that was due to the fact she died so young. However, if the producers would have had the support of the family, it would have helped with this problem, as they would have been able to explain some of the changes they saw in the singer over the years as she grew and matured.
One of the biggest points of contention with this movie, though, has been the producers’ casting choices. Ever since Zendaya Coleman was announced as the original girl slated to play Aaliyah, there has been criticism around the fact she looks nothing like the singer and could not pull her off realistically because of this. After she backed out stating she was not ‘morally okay’ with doing the project, Alexandra Shipp, another actress who has no resemblance to the subject, was cast instead.
Shipp’s performance was not bad considering what she was given to work with. However, her singing performances were awkward and left much to be desired.
Shipp, however, was not the only casting misstep. None of the actors or actresses portraying major stars looked similar to their subjects. Chattrisse Dolabaille, who portrayed Missy Elliott in the movie, was considerably lighter than the MC and slim, which Missy was not during the late nineties. To compensate for this, the stylist tried to style her after Missy Elliott in the 2002-3 era, a change which was not lost on fans.
Anthony Grant and Izaak Smith also had many noticeable differences from their roles, as neither Dame Dash nor Timbaland were particularly light skinned, slim, or tall.
No one expected the casting of these major stars to be exactly spot on. Not every film can find a perfect fit like the producers of Ray did with Jamie Foxx. However, the casting of the movie just came off as lazy and slipshod, which only added fuel to the fire for those who were already expecting the movie to disappoint.
Biopics are always risky business because they’re difficult to execute, especially when there is conflict between the production team and the subject’s family. The ending result is either great or terrible with little to no middle ground in between and while no one was truly surprised by the results of this movie, that still didn’t make it any less upsetting.
Fans of Aaliyah and critics of the movie watched in amusement, disappointment and anger as they saw the results of Zendaya’s claims about the production values not being there, the music not being cleared, and the production of the movie ‘not being handled delicately considering the situation’ come to life on their television screens.
There is an age old saying that goes ‘if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all’, but for this situation, the statement is going to amended. If you don’t have all of the tools to properly execute a sensitive and important project, then don’t do it. Otherwise, you are going to end up with Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B, an underwhelming motion picture that ultimately fails to pay the proper respect owed to Aaliyah, her family, her friends, and her fans.