Worshipping at the Church of Beyoncé: The singer performs in California during her Renaissance tour in September. Photos: Kevin Mazur/Getty images
Outside it is a muggy Johannesburg on Friday 1 December. In the upmarket mall’s air-conned, gently darkening movie house there are four of us ready for the first global screening of Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé: me, colleague Lesego Chepape and, five rows closer to the screen, two young guys.
Watching a 12.15pm show feels like my student days eons ago when I did day-watching instead of attending classes — the difference is instead of vodka dinkies smuggled in to pour into my orange juice, I sneakily brought Lesego and I snacks in a cotton sling bag from some revolutionary conference. Ever the subversive, middle-class rebel with a Woolies card, I refuse to buy the cinema’s overpriced popcorn and slush.
At least we have aloe juice to sip on while being bombarded by trailers of movies I’ll most likely be skipping.
So, what am I doing here? I’m certainly not a member of the Beyhive. For people who have not been paying any attention whatsoever, here’s a handy definition from the Urban Dictionary: “Beyhive (noun) refers to Beyoncé’s fandom.
“Members of the Beyhive are usually women and gay men who obsess over Beyoncé to no end. They play her music to DEATH, saw The Pink Panther in theatres and worship the ground she steps on in her Louboutins.
“Members of the Beyhive will not hesitate to drag fans of other basic bitch Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, etc and their chief weapon (among others) is Beyoncé’s performance style, vocals, four consecutive #1 albums, box office receipts and Grammys (16 and counting).”
That information is slightly dated — it is now seven number ones and a record 32 Grammy Awards.
I have always been impressed by Beyoncé. She’s way more creative than most artists, not only those performing without surnames.
Just look at some of the interesting artists she has played with beyond the Drakes, Pharrells and Jay-Zs of this world: Sleigh Bells, Of Montreal, James Blake, The Chicks, Frank Ocean, Missy Elliott, Jack White, Andre 3000 and Grace Jones.
Her songs also include samples or interpolations of music by unexpected artists such as Lyn Collins, Donna Summer, Andy Williams, Animal Collective, Isaac Hayes, Shuggie Otis, Osunlade, Betty Wright, Cameo, Led Zeppelin, Nicolas Jaar, Oumou Sangaré and Tchaikovsky. All of this indicates an intelligent, tuned-in artist with ears wide open.
I’m also in the cinema for the spectacle. The movie is based on Beyonce’s five-month-long Renaissance World Tour, with its focus on last year’s back-to-the-discothèque album, Renaissance — incidentally still impressive, but my least favourite of her records.
The tour, which ended in September and was attended by 2.7 million fans across 56 dates in 39 cities, was described by Vanity Fair as “a cultural phenomenon, with attendees dressed in their finest silver outfits meticulously documenting every stop on social media”.
Before the tour, Forbes Magazine predicted it could clear her nearly $2.1 billion.
“Those eye-popping estimates are based on the most optimistic assumptions of the number of fans buying tickets at their concerts and high average ticket prices of about $700,” the report stated.
Fifteen minutes of trailers and ads are finally done — time to be Bey-guiled by the main attraction.
It is a roller-coaster ride, it’s a tank ride, it is a glass horse ride. It’s maximalist with a big M, where more is so much more.
The concert has translated amazingly to the big screen. Fantastic editing — blink, it’s Queen Bey in a spectacle costume. Blink! Another costume. Blink! A silver one. Blink! A red one. Blink! A bee, no Bey-themed, yellow and black. All in the same song.
The fans, or rather rapturous congregants in their glittering silver outfits, are singing back every song, tears streaming down their faces, smartphones held aloft like little Bey-bles, recording every sacred verse. This is their “safe space” provided by their goddess Beyoncé.
But the sense of Church isn’t just in the audience. At some stage, we’re seeing backstage there’s a little prayer group of emotional dancers, holding hands like in a revivalist church, eyes clenched closed.
It’s a sonic onslaught — it feels like I’m inside a fantastical video game but with super-sized added lights, glitter, sequences, robots, dancers, going from wow to wow-er in every scene, the volume tuned to “11”.
It is hyper capitalism on diamond-crusted stilettos. The military-industrial complex even gets a look-in with an ominous mobile tank with General Beyoncé on top.
“Over the course of the show’s three-hour, six-act structure, the stage is transformed into a glitzy disco cowboy wonderland (you couldn’t count all the sequins in just one sitting), a hypnotic lipstick-red universe, and an intergalactic sphere of otherworldly forms and metallic hues,” is how Elle Décor describes it.
Just when the “good grief!” of the spectacle starts feeling relentless, there are “ag shame” breaks away from the stage to Beyoncé’s past: poignant recounts of the gay family friend Uncle Johnny (his love of black dance music led to the making of Renaissance), chats to her mother, intimate scenes with her lovely kids, a mini-reunion of Destiny’s Child, a visit to her upscale childhood home in Houston.
As Wesley Morris writes in The New York Times, “She’s bringing the past with her into the present, communing with both an audience and her ancestors, accepting stewardship as a rite of longevity.”
But, after a while, even the “aw, shucks” folksiness doesn’t make me feel that I don’t want to check what’s happening on X. It strikes me, I need something to make me smile, which is when some unintended humour arrives — maybe just funny for us Saffas — as the screen suddenly goes black.
We’re seeing what really happened for 10 minutes during the tour’s Phoenix concert on 25 August. It’s added to the Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé for real dramatic effect — a truncated version of course.
This is how Entertainment Tonight described the blackout: “Fans at her Thursday night show in Glendale, Arizona, and the fan account Beyoncé Legion, said the ‘entire sound system failed’ as she performed Alien Superstar, which ironically begins with lyrics including, ‘The DJ booth is conducting a troubleshoot test of the entire system.’”
Beyoncé and her dancers then leave the stage.
The Entertainment Tonight report continues: “The moment the sound cut out was also captured on video, at which point the crowd collectively gasped and yelled.”
After the 10 minutes of silence Beyoncé “returned to the show in what appears to be a brand-new outfit — a metallic silver dress with large wings — and started the song over”.
This little melodrama has us Joburgers chuckling in the dark: “What? That’s fokol. Have you seen stage 8, Yoncé?”
There are fantastic moments, especially where the historically astute Beyoncé pays tribute to the heroes: Tina Turner, Donna Summer and then Diana Ross, who does a “surprise” appearance on stage to celebrate the Queen’s 42nd birthday on 4 September.
It’s two and half hours that haven’t flown past. I know I’m not a core fan, so it’s not surprising that I wasn’t engrossed every single moment. I’m in awe for sure because Beyoncé isn’t only a megastar and perfect entertainer, but also a strong woman, a powerful CEO who has not just made spectacular amounts of money with the concert tour, but also the movie.
Beyoncé ruled the box office on the film’s opening weekend, with $21 million in North American ticket sales, according to estimates from its distributor AMC Theatres.
AP reports it debuted in 2 539 theatres in the US and Canada, as well as 94 internationally, where it earned $6.4 million from 2 621 theatres.
It’s that which I recoiled from — the nauseating wealth, celebrity as a religion, couched in identity politics. This, at a time when the wealth gap is growing, and billionaires are the most powerful people, even in so-called democracies.
This is not Beyoncé bashing. But billionaires, with their power, can at least be a force for good with what they do, seeing they will never be taxed properly in capitalist societies.
So, later on Friday, 1 December I saw visuals on social media of young Israelis with massive flags in a local cinema, dancing and singing wildly — Beyoncé’s Break My Soul had become their new fighting song, this as the bombing of Gaza and killing of civilians continue.
Of course, she has no control over that, but surely she could have refused the film being shown in Israel while the Netanyahu regime continues its war on Gaza with the subsequent humanitarian crisis?
Newsweek reported this has put her under fire. Some of Beyoncé’s pro-Palestinian fans “took to social media to slam the singer, criticising her for championing causes such as civil rights and female empowerment but not taking a stand in the Israel-Hamas conflict”.
Wambúi wa Mwatha wrote on X: “She’s nobody’s saviour. Just another capitalist who doesn’t care about Palestine.” Another angry fan said, “You are progressive when it suits you and it’s not cute.”