Coachella turned 20 this year, but prior to 2018, no African-American woman had headlined the arts and music festival’s main stage. It feels appropriate that Beyoncé, quite possibly the biggest artist in the world today, was the one to make history, and in doing so, she metaphorically took the festival’s 250,000 ticket holders to school: Featuring a song list peppered with empowering quotations from black intellectuals and a set designed to look like the most elaborate NCAA halftime show of all time, Ms. Knowles-Carter celebrated historically black colleges and universities — and black identity and excellence — in a space, and to an audience, that no one had before.
Not content to dominate just one festival cycle, Beyoncé released the self-directed “Homecoming” documentary (and its accompanying live album) in between weekends one and two of Coachella 2019, reminding fans of her show-stopping sets from the previous year, and drawing back the curtain on what can fairly be described as one of the defining live performances, and cultural moments, of the modern era.
While taking fans through an onstage, nonstop parade of her many, many hits — all re-orchestrated and reimagined to suit the musical backdrop of the world’s most on-point marching band — Beyoncé’s film documents the tremendous effort she and a crew of hundreds mounted to get the concert ready, while filtering in wisdom and inspiration from African American luminaries that underlines her indefatigable talent and ambition.
The most gifted entertainers are always capable of making the cultural conversation about them, but Beyoncé frequently returns the favor, making her work about a cultural conversation that is either already happening or should be. Then again, only an artist of her stature could turn a Super Bowl halftime show into a tribute to the Black Panthers and then ride the wave of a conservative backlash like a surfboard to an award-winning, $256 million-grossing worldwide tour. “Homecoming” reportedly netted Beyoncé $60 million for the Netflix broadcasting rights on top of $8 million for performing at Coachella; as with the two albums that preceded the performance (“Beyoncé” and “Lemonade”), she virtually redefined the way that artists monetize their work. But the emphasis and impact of both show and documentary serve the cause of HBCUs and black intellectualism every bit as much as it does Beyoncé herself.
What’s remarkable is how her contemporary persona — benevolent, take-no-s–t pop star and empowerment avatar for women across the globe — colors her every song. From early Destiny’s Child hits like “Say My Name” to “Top Off,” her collaboration with Jay-Z and Future for DJ Khaled, Beyoncé creates an onstage narrative that evokes not just the marital issues explored on “Lemonade” but also her vulnerabilities and her self-worth, and her demand that her partner recognize them too. Though the backstage footage renders Jay-Z mostly silent (except for one moment of punctuation to her production crew that acknowledges her authority and control), the documentary exudes a convincingly earnest attempt to move on from their drama, transforming her outrage into self-actualization and rendering their reconciliation both a cathartic payoff to their relationship and the career narrative of that album’s release. (That it sold some 2.5 million copies worldwide cemented both.)
Musically, the concert is intricate and precise while somehow being simultaneously explosive. From her opening number, “Crazy in Love,” which slows to a syrupy crawl and interpolates C-Murder’s “Down For My N—az,” the songs feel fresh, truly reinvented, in a way that few live performances actually accomplish. Coming back from giving birth to twins — a detail she addresses honestly — her voice and body, particularly in terms of the demanding choreography, are nothing short of miraculous. It all serves to underscore the versatility and specialness of her voice, which has matured and evolved over the course of 22 years to include many depths, dimensions and personalities, be they the unapologetic diva singing “I woke up like this” in “Flawless,” the scorned and unforgiving wife of “Hurt Yourself,” or the satisfied and grateful star, celebrating her success in love, life and art with “Love on Top.”
As carefully choreographed and rehearsed as every moment of her concert is, there’s an undeniable spontaneity and humanity to the show born from the collective enthusiasm of her collaborators — the infectious energy of people working in the service of music and a message they truly believe in. It’s a message that exists simultaneously with the visceral thrill of spectacular showmanship, thanks to extraordinary thought, discipline and preparation taken to mount a show with complexity and precision.
And it’s also one that Beyoncé reciprocates both in the structure — each quote or excerpt, paired with behind-the-scenes footage, more encouraging and empathetic than the last — and the sheer, astonishing effort that she puts into creating the absolute best concert humanly possible. Even her cutaways to the crowd are generous; while there’s a generous helping of tearful adulation, shots almost always cut to fans who know the song lyrics as well as she does.
Ultimately, “Homecoming” uniquely communicates the feeling of being in the audience watching such a singular experience. It expresses the energy and enthusiasm of every musician and dancer working in the service of making it so incredible. And it honors Beyoncé as the conductor of this absolutely incredible and unique moment, not just at Coachella but in pop-culture history itself. In other words, the hundreds of Instagram stories your friends shared from Coachella understandably failed to do Beyoncé’s once-in-a-lifetime performance justice, but this revelatory, incredible, inspiring documentary gives you both a front-row pass to watch every hit song and backstage access to see how its musical, logistical and philosophical foundations all came together in perfect harmony.