Is there a better way to honor a talented, still rising star who was taken from us too soon than an unauthorized Lifetime biopic? Yes, there are absolutely countless ways to pay tribute the late, great Aaliyah than a messy “biographical” movie that merely pulls a few names, dates and locations from her life story. Heavily protested by her family and closest friends and collaborators, Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B barely scratches the surface of how she changed the course for pop, hip-hop and R&B in the Nineties and why her death at age 22 on August 25, 2001 was such a huge loss for music fans.
Based off of Christopher John Farley’s 2001 biography Aaliyah: More Than a Woman, the film reeks of disapproval from those who actually knew her or engaged with her art. But Princess did teach us some things, though most of those lessons should’ve been learned by the film’s team long before they even began to put together this train-wreck of a biopic. Here are 10 takeaways:
1. You need original music for a biopic on a singer.
That’s a shocker, right? A film about a famous pop star needs more than just the covers she did of other people’s famous songs to survive. Who knew? The introduction to Aaliyah’s hearty repertoire of favorite songs to cover live and on record happens in the first scene, where we’re introduced to the actual baby version of Baby Girl (her nickname) as a 10-year-old on Star Search performing “My Funny Valentine.” It’s a taste of what’s in store — all the film offers is an Aaliyah Covers 101 course, thanks to an embargo on Aaliyah’s original music placed by her family. So instead of the hits that made a bona fide pop-star sensation, we get her takes on Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” and the Isley Brothers’ “At Your Best”; meanwhile, we’re supposed to forget that revolutionary songs like “Are You That Somebody?” “Try Again,” and “One in a Million” were what made her canon-worthy.
2. Actors should maybe look a little bit like the person they’re portraying.
A biopic rule of thumb: If the performances are going to be as weak and uncomfortable to watch as the ones in this film, someone should at least find actors who vaguely resemble the real-life characters they’re portraying. The less said about the portrayals of Missy Elliott and Timbaland, the better; Alexandra Shipp’s performance as the princess herself only had fleeting moments of capturing the essence of Aaliyah, whether it was the way she smirked and how she wore those street-fashion clothes. Never mind that she couldn’t quite master the subtle brilliance behind that soft falsetto large enough to fill a room; overall, Shipp barely has a chance to skim the surface of who this young artist was.
3. The actor playing Young Aaliyah is the only one who even remotely studied her character.
Seriously, give it up for Kamaia Fairburn-Grant, the little girl playing 10-year-old Aaliyah. She mastered every last gesture from the Star Search clip in a way that gave us just enough hope that the film wouldn’t be a total mess. It was all downhill from here.
4. Apparently, Aaliyah spoke like an inspirational quotes poster whenever she was offstage.
It was bad enough that most of the supporting characters sounded like they were simply reading inspirational quotes from Hallmark cards; when Shipp pulled out platitudes about her dreams coming true and the joys of real love, however, it was deadly. Every pivotal scene featured Aaliyah spitting out cringeworthy clichés, and the final conversation between her and Damon Dash played out like a collection of Pinterest posts read from cue cards. Any semblance of the personality from their real-life counterparts were vacuum-sucked out. Any of these scenes felt like they could’ve been lifted from any other Lifetime movie, past, present or future.
5. A brief question can always double as major plot point.
Need to address emotional turmoil or a complex situation? Just introduce a new character and simply ask her a couple questions. “Why do you want to do movies?” “Do you like R. Kelly?” “Why did you move to New York?” According to Princess, big moves in Aaliyah’s life didn’t need to be played out or explored — because all she needed was a radio interview, Hollywood executive, or childhood friend to simply give her a prompt and she’d helpfully explain it to the audience.
6. Her relationship with R. Kelly was more Romeo & Juliet than To Catch a Predator?
From the first vaguely excited reference to R. Kelly at the beginning of the film by Aaliyah’s family, there was something particularly off-putting about the film’s approach to the courtship and marriage of 15-year-old Aaliyah to her 27-year-old producer. Even before there were numerous rape and pedophilia accusations stacked against him, the relationship between the pair was still pretty reasonably disgusting, especially since they were both initially introduced when she was only 12.
7. The latter part of Aaliyah’s career was kickstarted by her heartache.
Though R. Kelly physically exits the picture as soon as her parents find out about the nuptials, his presence lingers over Aaliyah’s personal life and professional career. It’s understandable to an extent: his presence is all over Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number as producer and songwriter, and they were married. Clearly the break would have an effect on her as she matured into a young woman and artist, but Princess makes it seem as if the heartbreak over her star-crossed love was the primary motivation behind her following, and final, two albums.
Yes, getting married that young to some who was as old as the “Bump & Grind” singer surely did have some type of effect — but to treat it like some type of Waiting to Exhale-level bad breakup is pretty ignorant of the circumstances. It’s also pretty demeaning to Aaliyah, since fans are well aware that she prospered as a smart and talented artist even without Kellys’ production credits. In fact, she was responsible for finding people like Timbaland and Missy — artists who were arguably even better than her Svengali and inarguably less exploitative.
8. Drake is Aaliyah’s brother?!?
Okay, we know he’s not — but seriously, the actor playing Aaliyah’s older brother Rashad bears a striking resemblance to the rapper who also happens to have a fascination, to say the least, with Aaliyah and her entire web of collaborators. At least there was one person in the film who looked like a famous musical artist! Lifetime should remember this actor for Started from Degrassi: The Drake Story.
9. You should always trust a family’s trepidation.
If the family of a deceased subject gets bad vibes from a film about said subject, maybe — just maybe — their expert opinion should be trusted. Barry and Jomo Hankerson, her uncle and cousin who respectively who handle Aaliyah’s catalogue, were unwilling to cough up the rights to any of music or images for use in this low-budget Lifetime production. And rightfully so: imagine how genuinely terrible a recreation of one of her iconic music videos would’ve been in this package? Even if you take out the likelihood that the story’s sensitive material would be treated with tabloid sensationalism, the lack of her actual body of work was the first sign that this film should’ve been stopped well before it was begun.
10. Aaliyah’s story deserves a proper movie.
To be fair, we knew that going in. But this torrid take on Aaliyah’s life only confirms that she deserves much, much better than this. Baby Girl was a breath of fresh air in the era’s pop and R&B landscapes, and has remained so iconic 13 years after a plane crash cut her life short. Clearly, this Lifetime movie was not an ideal way to service her memory. Since her passing, controversy has surrounded the use and manipulation of her material by artists like Drake and Chris Brown, who have jumped on unreleased Aaliyah tracks to add verses and have copped her voice for their own respective songs. Plus, her vocals are even going to be brought to life once more on the forthcoming release from Timbaland protege Tink. But Aaliyah was a private person during her lifetime, so perhaps a preservation of her legacy through equivocated levels of privacy would be ideal for a while — or at least until the Hankersons fulfill their dreams of seeing a much larger Hollywood biopic be made to honor the star.We know we have a one in a million chance of that happen, but a fan can dream.