Lifetime’s Aaliyah Biopic: The Film That Should Never Have Been Made

Lifetime aired its controversial biopic on late R&B icon Aaliyah tonight, and true to the network’s recent trend with celebrity and pop culture tell-alls — need we bring up the cringe-worthy Brittany Murphy and Saved By the Bell films? — it was pretty bad. While there are some positives to Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B (it paints the “Try Again” singer as passionate and determined, and lead actress Alexandra Shipp both looks and feels like Aaliyah), most of it is quite insulting.

There’s a reason why Aaliyah’s family didn’t condone this movie (allegedly, they’re saving their own biopic plans for the big screen). It skates over many aspects of her life that undoubtedly impacted her in a profound way, notably her relationship with R.Kelly, who produced Aaliyah’s first album Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number (1994) and began an inappropriate relationship with the singer in her early teen years; the two allegedly married when she was 15, and he was 27.  While Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B Executive Producer Wendy Williams defended the film’s lighter approach, it seems like the team behind it was afraid to tell the singer’s real story. And that’s where it goes wrong.

Let’s start out positive, though. The film wasn’t a total tragedy, and it managed to get a few things right:

It shows Aaliyah strong and in control of her career. 

Aaliyah was a go-getter, and Lifetime made sure that was apparent. If we’re to believe the movie, it was always Aaliyah — never a fame-hungry “momager” or “stage dad” — who wanted a career in show business. She displayed an incredible amount of poise and professionalism for a girl who also had trigonometry homework on her mind. A film highlight was when Aaliyah met with suited-up executives at her record label to discuss her sophomore album One in a Million, and they were insistent on bringing in surefire hit-maker Rodney Jerkins to produce the LP. But Aaliyah, at the ripe-old age of 16, demanded that then-unknown hip-hop maestros Missy Elliott and Timbaland take the reins. That took some serious guts, but it certainly paid off. Million went on to sell 10 million copies worldwide.

Her family is portrayed as supporting and loving, despite Aaliyah’s seismic rise to fame. 

Fame can change families, but definitely not Aaliyah’s. The film paints the Haughtons as down-to-Earth, warm, and unaffected by Aaliyah’s incredible success. In one tender scene, Aaliyah’s grandmother gives a family ring to the “Rock the Boat” singer so she will always be with her. Cue tears.

In the (few) performance scenes featured, Shipp isn’t half bad. 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HgCUmJjUbJU
The movie didn’t have a lot of material to work with (more on that later), but Shipp does do Aaliyah justice in the few and far between performance shots. During a Detroit High School talent show, Shipp brings the house down with a kick-ass rendition of “My Prerogative” by Bobby Brown. She brought a smoothness and natural sex appeal to the number that was quintessentially Aaliyah, and that permeates throughout the film. Well done.

Unfortunately, that’s about it. There’s many things wrong with this film; however, we’ve provided you the highlights:

Because Aaliyah’s family owns the rights to her music, many of her hits aren’t included in the film. And that makes it suffer. 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nEF_-IcnQC4
Shipp defended the lack of Aaliyah staples in the film last week in an interview with MyFox New York: “I didn’t want this to be a recreation of all of her music videos or all of her big hits,” she said. “I didn’t want it to be a karaoke film.” While this is admirable to say, Shipp is missing the point just a smidgen. Not including major Aaliyah milestones like “Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number,” “One in a Million,” or “Try Again” makes any film about the singer seem incomplete, unsatisfying, and dull. It’s like not including “Thriller” in a movie about Michael Jackson or “…Baby One More Time” in a Britney Spears biopic. If you can’t include the big stuff, then what’s the point?

Missy Elliott and Timbaland are horribly miscast. 

Missy and Tim, as Aaliyah aptly refers to them in the film, were pivotal in taking the pint-sized singer’s career to the next level. However, Lifetime did a poor job capturing the two icons with the actors they cast (Chattrisse Dolabaille as Elliott and Izaak Smith as Timbaland). Urban Daily criticized Dolabaille for being too light-skinned and thin to play the then-full-figured Elliott. Smith received similar backlash, according to BET. After watching the flick, we have to agree. We would’ve loved if Lifetime took the time to find actors that could do Elliott and Timbaland justice.

Her movie career isn’t given the homage it deserves. 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0lo0R1Ft5bA
Aaliyah broke down major boundaries for African American women in mainstream Hollywood, and the movie limply acknowledges this. The film would have benefited from Romeo Must Die behind-the-scenes action, more information on how Queen of the Damned came about or even some Matrix negotiation scenes. In the same vein as her music, blazing past Aaliyah’s film career with a few weak scenes doesn’t reflect her contributions accurately.

The acting is sub-par. The script is even worse. 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R4qV08uupAo
These two go hand in hand. Because the script was so forced — in one shot, Aaliyah’s boyfriend Damon Dash rattles off her accomplishments like a laundry list, and it’s cringeworthy — the acting takes a nosedive. While it’s certainly not as disgraceful as The Brittany Murphy Story, it’s far from Oscar-winning. Shipp in particular struggled to distinguish drama from melodrama in the movie’s more serious moments.

The film doesn’t show the reactions of Aaliyah’s tragic death. In fact, it’s barely mentioned. 
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kAwELEB_l1I
“What we’re not showing you is the tastelessness of a plane crash and we’re not going into deep some of the things that would ruffle the family’s feathers,” Williams said in a recent radio interview, according to CocoaFab. And while airing the devastating details of the plane crash that killed Aaliyah in 2001 (when she was 22) would not be a smart move, showing Hollywood’s reaction to it would have been. Aaliyah was one of the music industry’s most promising young stars, and capturing how her untimely death rocked Tinsel Town would have brought home the fact that she was so well-loved.

The severity of R. Kelly and Aaliyah’s dysfunctional relationship is never stressed.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B is the film’s depiction of her relationship with R. Kelly. Instead of emphasizing that Kelly was committing a heinous sex crime with Aaliyah (including their marriage when she was 15), Lifetime paints the coupling as puppy love gone wrong. Besides Aaliyah’s father threatening to have Kelly arrested for statutory rape if he didn’t annul the marriage, we see no negative repercussions from this relationship. In fact, her parents get the short-end of the stick; Aaliyah makes them out to be monsters for shutting down the Kelly affair. The film also makes no mention of Kelly’s previous or future sexual abuse accusations or the trauma it caused Aaliyah. Why Lifetime didn’t see this as important (or why it so severely whitewashed it) will remain a mystery. But it’s certainly not OK.

Our consensus? This is a film that shouldn’t have been made, plain and simple. Without the family’s blessing, Lifetime was forced to deliver a half-cocked, shoddy portrayal of one of music’s most iconic young figures. It hurts Aaliyah’s legacy more than anything. And it might be too late to try again.

[Photo Credit: Lifetime]