Before her untimely passing in August 2001, singer Aaliyah had been one of the brightest voices in R&B. She had a maturity, grace and talent that are largely absent in current pop stars. Given the influence her music has had over today’s biggest artists -- from Adele to Beyoncé -- it’s clear she could have become one of the biggest musicians of all time if she had lived longer than her brief 22 years.
So if you’re looking for a good introduction to her life and career, Lifetime’s “Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B” that aired last weekend probably isn’t the place to start.
The biopic was doomed from its conception. Aaliyah’s family was opposed to the idea of the movie from its onset, declining to give Lifetime the rights to use her music. As a result, the only music used for this movie are cover songs Aaliyah recorded, including her performance of a song from “Anastasia” at the 1998 Academy Awards -- not really the most representative of her musical style. The project also got widespread criticism regarding its casting choices, which many people felt were guilty of whitewashing and colorism.
Perhaps most troubling is the film’s focus on, and romanticization of, Aaliyah’s relationship with R. Kelly, to whom she was illegally married when she was 15 and he was 27. Given what we know today about R. Kelly, it’s not only offensive and disrespectful, but downright tasteless to place so much focus on him during a movie meant to depict Aaliyah’s legacy.
And did I mention it’s a Lifetime movie? It’s not terribly surprising that they put together something so problematic and low-budget rather than paying their proper respects to an extraordinary life, as Lifetime’s brand is virtually built on mediocre made-for-TV drivel.
Since the biopic premiered on Saturday, Nov. 15, critics and fans alike have taken to the web to air their grievances.
“The final result was a bland, non-insightful look into Aaliyah’s life and career that, while managing to avoid any majorly salacious drama, unfortunately ended up stripping most of the heart, soul and reverence that the late singer-actress deserved,” the Wall Street Journal’s review said.
At least one good thing came from all the bad: social media’s response.
Twitter users have been particularly vocal, creating the hashtags #LifetimeBiopics and #LifetimeBeLike.
Both memes hold nothing back when taking shots at Lifetime for its misguided casting choices, pointing out the whitewashing and overall obliviousness of pretty much everyone involved in this movie’s creation.
Some of my personal favorites:
Despite the movie’s widespread backlash, Lifetime and the movie’s producers don’t seem to feel too bad about it. Regardless of whether viewers enjoyed it -- or whether the movie succeeded at staying true to Aaliyah’s life -- the movie attracted 3.2 million viewers for its premiere.
So for all intents and purposes, the people over at Lifetime were free to let the haters hate, hate, hate and shake it off, for the movie was a hit numbers-wise. “The Princess of R&B” is currently the No. 2 TV movie of 2014.
“I see my Aaliyah movie broke the Internet this weekend!” Wendy Williams, the film’s executive producer, said after seeing some of its social media backlash. “Errbody got an opinion. Well, I must tell you, whether you loved or hate, you watched. It was the second-highest rated movie on all of cable this year so far.”
For Lifetime, the movie’s overwhelmingly negative response translated to thousands more viewers than it likely would have had if its audience had been neutral or positive. But at what point does artistic integrity and showing respect to the dead take a backseat to profit?
Maybe the controversy had been what the film’s producers were aiming for all along, but it’s truly incredible that no one in Lifetime’s chain of command had stepped back to consider if it was maybe a bad idea to whitewash people like Missy Elliott and Timbaland, romanticize a predator and trivialize the life of a talent gone too soon.
It would be nice to have hope that Lifetime won’t make the same mistakes it made while portraying Aaliyah’s life with its upcoming Whitney Houston biopic, but I won’t hold my breath.
Were you one of the poor, unfortunate souls who sat through “Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B”? Or are you just here for the memes? Feel free to share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.