Lifetime's Aaliyah Movie Is As Bad As You Expected It to Be

From the casting to the script, a lot went wrong. Aaliyah deserved better.

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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Lifetime’s interpretation of the life of the late R&B singer Aaliyah was as much a tribute to her legacy as a drunk, hoarse person's impromptu cover of “Rock the Boat” at a karaoke bar is. 

Aaliyah: Princess of R&B is that bad and for numerous reasons. For starters, there are times when you don’t necessarily need a family’s involvement in a biopic to make it quality; however, when you’re making a movie depicting the life of an iconic singer, it is imperative that you have the rights to said singer’s music. The family owns said rights, they were unwilling to share, and the movie suffers heavily as a result.

The only songs the production team could secure are ones like “Journey to the Past,” which yes, Aaliyah performed at the 1998 Academy Awards but is not exactly among the first 10 songs she is best known for.  The same goes for her cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up”—a track from One in a Million that did lead to a music video, though not one that anyone outside of her core fans ever cares to revisit. If they were this hard up for Aaliyah music, I would’ve advised producers to go even deeper into the crates and go beg for “Are You Ready?” from the Sunset Park soundtrack.  

There were at least two songs used that we knew. Diane Warren did accept Lifetime’s check to use “The One I Gave My Heart To,” and the film did make note of Aaliyah’s brilliant rendition of “At Your Best (You Are Love).”

Unfortunately, Alexandra Shipp, who was selected to play Aaliyah after Zendaya Coleman smartly bowed out of the project, was the person whose voice we heard as opposed to the singer whose life was being chronicled (poorly). Shipp’s take on Aaliyah’s works are subpar. She simply lacks the spark of Aaliyah’s sweet soprano. But that is not a shot at Shipp; she should not have been placed in the position to sing those songs. Now with respect to Shipp’s dancing, which was also not reminiscent of Aaliyah, she probably didn’t have enough time for dance rehearsal given so much of this movie feels rushed.

Shipp is actually not the worst of the casting, though. Who made the choice to make Timbaland Gluten Free, and Missy Elliott thinner and lighter than she’s ever been? Even so, there’s some reward in making R. Kelly look more like Aaron Hall given how much of Hall’s style Kelly heavily borrowed from. 

Still, the casting is bad, and the script, messy and choppy.

There are parts of this story that simply don’t match the actual trajectory of the career. There were many moments where I kept thinking aloud “If this is supposed to be in year 1996, why are we watching things that actually happened in 1998?” By the way, are we supposed to believe that after Aaliyah’s marriage to R. Kelly was annulled, she mopped around for five years later waiting for…Damon Dash?

So we’re going to gloss over the fact that she was linked to other men like Jay Z? This only reminds us that the problem with trying to make a movie about Aaliyah’s life no matter the medium—basic cable or a proposed feature film—is that not everyone wants to be completely frank about the course of her life. 

Aaliyah’s life was a constant state of mystery, and if nothing else, Aaliyah: Princess of R&B makes a strong case of why it should stay that way.

As much as Wendy Williams—who hopped on board as executive producer midway and heavily promoted the movie on her talk show until the very last second—wanted to make certain to viewers that the movie would really “take it there” about her short-lived and illegal marriage to R. Kelly, there was too much focus played on that portion of her life for obvious reasons. Their version of events was a little too sympathetic to Kelly and her uncle and label boss, Barry Hankerson, who worked with Kelly even after the marriage to his teenage niece was annulled—a fun fact also left out of the movie (as highlighted by Los Angeles Times music writer Gerrick Kennedy).

Aaliyah’s life was a constant state of mystery, and if nothing else, Aaliyah: Princess of R&B makes a strong case of why it should stay that way. 

When asked by the Washington Post about pre-premiere backlash, executive producer Debra Martin Chase said, “Biopics are hard. People have an opinion, and social media allows them to voice that opinion. But at the end of the day, our goal was to make the best movie possible.”​ Aaliyah: Princess of R&B failed that mission miserably, and viewers have loudly delivered that message. 

If there is anything to take away from this movie, it is this: Let that girl rest in peace and her story stay with those who truly knew her.

Michael Arceneaux hails from Houston, lives in Harlem, and praises Beyoncé’s name wherever he goes. Follow him @youngsinick.

RELATED: Why Aaliyah's Best Music Isn't Online

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