FILM REVIEW: AALIYAH

BEYOND THE GOSSIP

AALIYAH: THE PRINCESS OF R&B

By Teryl Warren

For years, there has been talk around Hollywood of a biopic about the late R&B singer/actress Aaliyah. For months, since the official announcement of Lifetime’s attempt to bring a depiction of her life to the small screen, there have been heated debates, controversies and a host of obstacles that threatened to malign the project altogether. In the weeks leading up to the film’s premiere on November 15, Wiles sat down with some of the people who stayed the course and made the film a reality.

Alexandra Shipp as Aaliyah in Aaliyah:Princess of R&B/Photo by Christos Kalohoridis

August 25, 2001 is a date that will live in the memories of R&B music fans as the day the “street-but- sweet” soprano voice of R&B Princess Aaliyah was silenced when she was killed in a tragic plane crash at the age of 22.

In a landscape heavily populated with R&B divas in both music and on television, it’s hard to imagine a day when women were little more than second-class citizens in hip hop culture.  But artists like Brandy and Aaliyah – who seamlessly combined model-esque beauty with tomboy style to create a unique sensuality never seen before or since – brought a new brand of female flavor to the airwaves and paved the way for future global stars like Beyonce, Britney Spears, Rihanna and countless others.

Alexandra Shipp stars as Aaliyah in Aaliyah:Princess of R&B/Photo by Braadley Walsh

Aaliyah’s influence and enormous popularity in the pre-social media era is also a part of her legacy that set her apart from her peers, and she continues to be lauded as Billboard’s tenth most famous R&B artist of the past 25 years and one of the recording industry’s most successful artists in history.

Now, some of the people who worked with her and chronicled Aaliyah’s career as it was unfolding have joined forces with Lifetime to produce the much-debated biopic Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B.  Based on the bestseller Aaliyah: More Than a Woman by former Time Magazine music editor Christopher John Farley (Game World) and boasting Executive Producers Debra Martin Chase (The Princess Diaries, Sparkle) and gossip talk show host Wendy Williams (Wendy Williams Show), the film follows the beautiful and talented performer’s inspirational journey, from her debut on Star Search at the age of ten to the challenges she faced during her rise to become the Princess of R&B.

“I first met Aaliyah when I interviewed her for TIME,” Christopher Farley told us. “She was breaking new ground in style, music and movies.  She was such a pioneer. I wanted to get her into TIME and to get the story of her new album to our readers. When she died, I was struck by what a loss it was. Aaliyah’s death was a huge loss – not just a loss of her music – but the loss of a wonderful human being.”

Veteran producer Debra Martin Chase echoed Farley’s sentiments.

“I was developing Sparkle for her [to star in], and I had lunch with her about a month before she died,” Chase reflected. “She was really captivating, charming, smart and intellectually curious. In the course of  publicizing Sparkle [in 2012], I found myself reliving my connection with Aaliyah.  When Lifetime approached me about making the film, I saw it as an opportunity to celebrate her and to introduce her, her story and the inspiration of her life to a new generation of young people.  Aaliyah was really special and I wanted people to realize that.”

And while the intentions behind the making of the film may have been good, the production, itself, was plagued by controversy and rumors from the beginning. One such rumor is that Aaliyah’s family refused to give its blessing to the project and that they were never approached by filmmakers prior to production. Farley was quick to dispel that rumor.

“We did reach out to Aaliyah’s family before proceeding with the film, and they chose not to cooperate [with us].”

Unfortunately, this lack of partnership has resulted in a missed opportunity to fully celebrate the legacy that both sides seem genuinely interested in preserving.

In choosing not to be a part of the filmmaking process, Aaliyah’s family has had no say in the way her relationship with super-producer R. Kelly is portrayed in the film. Executive Producer Wendy Williams – whose gossip show followed the relationship closely in the mid 1990′s – has been quite vocal in wanting the network to “get it right,” but with little more than a marriage license that was published in VIBE Magazine to substantiate it, the fictionalized Romeo-and-Juliet account of the relationship between then 15 year-old Aaliyah and 27 year-old R. Kelly will likely only lead to more gossip and speculation.

R&B singer/actress Aaliyah

Multi-talented actress and singer/songwriter Alexandra Shipp – whose credits include Drumline 2: A New Beat, Ray Donovan and  the Nickelodeon series House of Anubis, stepped into the shoes to play Aaliyah vacated by actress/singer Zendaya.  And while Shipp does light up the screen and captures a youthful vitality that Aaliyah undoubtedly possessed, there is one glaring omission from the film that Aaliyah’s fans can’t help but notice:  the absence of Aaliyah’s distinct, sultry voice and many of her biggest hits on much of the film’s soundtrack.  Shipp does an adequate job of singing many of the songs herself, but it is during scenes depicting recording sessions and live performances that the film could’ve benefited most from the cooperation of and collaboration with the Haughton Family.

Rather than dwell on the challenges faced and opportunities missed, Debra Martin Chase saluted her team – which included highly regarded Casting Director Twinkie Byrd - on their ability to keep their eyes on the ultimate prize –  come what may.

“Biopics are hard [films to make],” she shared.  ”Aaliyah has a very active fan base that loves her to this day. Many people [will] have opinions and social media allows them to voice those opinions, but there are very practical considerations you have to make as filmmakers. We wanted to make sure that Aaliyah is never forgotten and we chose to stay focused on making the best movie possible.”

For his part, Christopher Farley sees the film’s importance as much broader than music and, interestingly, more far-reaching than the telling of one R&B Princess’ life story.

“Aaliyah’s legacy isn’t just her impact on music. She had such a sense of self and musical history, a sense of grace and style,” Farley said.  “She was a very unique package as a very young person. Young people need to see that their lives matter and can have an impact. In a way, this film is celebrating all young people and showing them that with hard work they, too, can achieve their dreams.”

Alexandra Shipp stars as Aaliyah in Aaliyah:Princess of R&B/Photo by Christos Kalohoridis

 Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B premieres on Lifetime on Saturday, November 15, at 8pm ET/PT

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