How Lifetime Can Learn From All the Aaliyah Movie Hate


It’s Monday and everyone’s still talking about the skid marks left behind by Lifetime’s biopic,
Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B, which aired on Saturday. Some fans are even (hilariously) going so far as to boycott Wendy Williams, the movie’s co-executive producer. I haven’t seen this much vitriol for a TV biopic since Lil Mama was cast as Left Eye in the TLC movie.

The difference, of course, was that with Vh1’s Crazy Sexy Cool: The TLC Story, Lil Mama delivered a performance that impressed us, in a movie that proved to be more entertaining than it should’ve been. And it wasn’t just that it exceeded a low bar. Vh1’s producers seemed to take careful measures to get the story right. Even with the cheese factor, it left us entertained. The Aaliyah movie, in comparison, had similar sub-zero expectations and bombed.

Roadblocks will always pop up whenever someone’s interpreting a celebrity’s life, especially when fans have the ability to be so critical and vocal. But some of this could’ve been prevented if only a few things were looked at more closely. Plenty of other film and TV biopics had their make-it-work moments. Here’s an analysis of some of social media’s most hateful critique about the Aaliyah biopic, along with my constructive criticism.

1) For Wendy Williams

The No. 1 suggestion would’ve been: Hey, guys, don’t make the movie at all. Without the family’s stamp of approval, all the producers had to go off of regarding Aaliyah’s life were magazine articles, conjecture and the book that the script was based on, More Than a Woman. Timbaland posted the above gem on Instagram over the weekend, amid a rampage of “told you so” tweets ethering the movie.

Today on her talk show, Wendy Williams, meanwhile, chose to focus on the positive. “I see my Aaliyah movie broke the Internet this weekend,” she said. “Everybody’s got an opinion. Whether you loved it or hated it, you watched. It was the second highest rated movie on cable this year.” Whoever “loved” it needs to come out of hiding. Executive-producing a categorically atrocious biopic isn’t a great bullet point on your resumé, Wendy.

We know it’s a Lifetime movie, but it’s not okay to be cool with putting out a messy story of a black R&B singer who had a cultural impact, whether people think she’s overrated or not. As for the ratings, there’s a weird logic behind hate-watching a show that I think makes sense. I’d argue that even without the lure of Twitter-bashing, if this was 10 years ago, people would tune in either way.

2) For the Casting/Cast

Captain Obvious point No. 2: This movie would’ve benefited immensely from better casting. In 2009’s Notorious—another biopic that similar to TLC’s had real-life consultingrapper Gravy’s portrayal as Biggie and Naturi Naughton as Lil Kim surprised us all in a good way. In this case, it’s hard to make up for a lead actress who’s just a poor fit overall.

Alexandra Shipp, aka Aaliyah lite lite lite, lacked the ease and quiet confidence needed to pull off the role of Aaliyah. The casting director, Tracy “Twinkie” Bird, maybe knew this, but I’m guessing that after Zendaya Coleman dropped out, time constraints forced the producers into Plan C. Shipp said she only had 10 days to prepare whereas the rest of the cast had months. That’s my main issue with rushed productions. Take your time finding the right actors.

Meanwhile, in his portrayal of R. Kelly, Clé Bennett looked like five different people throughout the movie, including Joe and Aaron Hall. Timbaland was somehow thin and fine, and Damon Dash was like 7-feet tall. Casting a biopic is usually a crapshoot because you can’t expect exact replicas. But did they use Flex’s Michael Jackson role as a vision board?

Bird previously casted Notorious and Fruitvale Station, so I won’t hold this against her. She retweeted this:

3) For the Writers

This was really the origin of the mess. A good movie starts with a solid script and this just wasn’t. Executive producers Howard Braunstein and Debra Martin Chase defended the R. Kelly part of the storyline, telling The Washington Post: “The evidence is there that they were married. We tried to keep it very tasteful and respectful in our portrayal.”

It came across like a pedophile rom-com. The R. Kelly portion deserved a lighter touch. They may have felt pressured to not gloss over that part of Aaliyah’s life, but making it such a huge chunk of the plot was a misstep. Subtlety.

4) For the Soundtrack

The producers couldn’t legally use most of Aaliyah’s music or recreate performances, so all we heard were Shipp’s renditions of “At Your Best,” “Journey to the Past” and “The One I Gave My Heart To,” plus a couple cover songs. As much as Aaliyah’s real vocals would’ve helped, there may have been a way around that. The Five Heartbeats, which was “loosely based” on the careers of acts like the Temptations and the Four Tops, made it work without the real Motown music. Instead, they hired the R&B group After 7 to sing.

More recently, Beyond the Lights had producer-songwriter The-Dream create original songs for their score. We all know Aaliyah wasn’t hitting high notes like crazy, but Shipp could barely carry a tune. Vocals from a new, more capable artist would’ve helped in this case. And if there’s no Aaliyah music, then what about choreography scenes, a la my secret obsessions Stomp the Yard and Step Up? Aaliyah’s dancing was integral to her popularity, so seeing her practice to other ’90s R&B songs could’ve worked and made up for some things.

Of course, I can tell you what could’ve been done, but I wasn’t there. Unfortunately, it all comes down to a lack of involvement from those close with Aaliyah. In the case of the TLC movie, having T-Boz and Chilli involved in the process helped its authenticity and likely made the writing process easier. It boils down to being respectful of a person’s life and story, especially when you’re telling it to a mass audience. At the least, start by pronouncing the woman’s name correctly.

Image via Lifetime

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