It has been thirteen years since Aaliyah’s untimely death. A rising superstar, she had two wildly successful albums under her belt (Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number (1994) and One in A Million (1996).) She also managed to secure roles in the Matrix sequels, having already shot Romeo Must Die (2000) and Queen of the Damned (2002). Only 22 years old at the time of her death, she’d already accomplished a great deal. Had she lived, I’m sure that her success would have rivaled that of our current greats. (ie: Beyonce, Rhianna)
There have been talks for many years about turning Aaliyah’s life into a film, despite lack of support from her family and those who were closest to her. Since she was extremely young when she passed, there has been a great effort to maintain her image and her preserve her life’s work, which a film could potentially jeopardize. Despite these concerns, huge pushback, and a casting shake-up, Lifetime decided to press forward with their film on her life entitled, Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B.
I had the opportunity to screen a rough cut of the film, and I’ll be honest and say that I went into it with extremely low expectations. The story follows Aaliyah Dana Haughton (Alexandra Shipp) from her failed Star Search appearance in 1989 to her passing in August 2001. The film provided a bland and general overview of Aaliyah’s life, with the occasional melodramatic acting (which is often typical of Lifetime.)
The Haughton’s are depicted as extremely family oriented. Aaliyah’s Uncle, Barry Hankerson, (Lyric Bent) ran Blackground Records and managed Aaliyah from the beginning of her career. Despite singing with Gladys Knight (played brilliantly by Elise Neal) who is Barry’s ex-wife, Aaliyah struggles for years to get her career off the ground. Instead she showcases her talent by performing in school talent shows and at local events. It’s not until 1993, when Barry introduced her to R. Kelly, (Clé Bennett) that her career takes off. Fresh off his widely successful 12 Play (1993), Aaliyah goes to Chicago to work with Kelly on what would become Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number (1994).
Much of the issue with having the film done at all has been how the relationship between R. Kelly and Aaliyah would be depicted. Surprisingly, Lifetime treated the relationship as well as they could have.
Kelly, (Bennett) at the top of his game, is uninterested in even hearing Aaliyah sing at first. However, that all changes after her audition with him. At once, he’s enchanted and their relationship becomes uncomfortably close moving from a mentor mentee relationship into one that is secretive and predatory in nature.
Though it’s obvious in the film that Aaliyah was young, naive, and clearly enamored with Kelly’s genius, the film (like society) seems to sweep his misdeeds under the rug. After her parents discover their marriage (in a uncomfortable scene both in terms of the acting ability and material), they have it swiftly annulled and Kelly fades into the background of Aaliyah’s life.
Post- Kelly, the film deals with Aaliyah’s second album One In A Million (1996) and her relationships with Timbaland (Izaak Stack) and Missy Elliot (Chattrisse Dolabaille); virtually unknown producers at the time. Though it was not intended to be humorous, the lack of resemblance between these actors and Tim and Missy amused me to no end. Perhaps the film would have been more worthwhile had it focused on them within the making of Million, but since the duo were hardly believable then perhaps not.
The film touches on important moments in her career including her performance at the Oscars in 1998 and ends with her relationship with Damon Dash (Anthony Grant).
The film certainly wasn’t anything spectacular; Shipp is an ok actress with a decent voice who unfortunately, can’t dance. This becomes obvious in every performance showcased in the film, as Shipp does nothing more than sway from side to side. I think it would have been better off if Lifetime had simply respected the family’s wishes and scrapped the idea of a movie altogether. If we are ever going to see another film on the late Princess of R&B’s life, I would hope that it’s at least a theatrical wide release, well funded, well-acted, and backed by her family. (There have been whispers of a 2015 theatrical release.)
Lifetime’s “Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B” gave me exactly what I expected, which sadly isn’t much at all.
Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B premieres Saturday, November 15that 8PM on Lifetime
xoxox Chocolate Girl in the City xoxoxox