During the past year or so, Lifetime’s reputation has changed. Once a network that aired unintentionally funny made-for-TV movies about tragic (but ultimately triumphant!) women and the men who wronged them, it has become a network that now regularly releases weak, pseudo-controversial, and above all, too-awful-for-words biopics about celebrities: the unfathomably bad Liz and Dick, the sleepy and boring Unauthorized Saved By the Bell Story, and the utterly shameless The Brittany Murphy Story. The network’s latest mistake is Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B, another horrendous mess to throw on top of Lifetime’s growing pile of crap.
Screwing up a biographical “film” like The Unauthorized Saved By the Bell Story is forgivable because it’s not an important story, the source material (Dustin Diamond’s book) was bad to begin with, and the casting choices and acting are both so laughable that it’s easy to assume Lifetime knew exactly what it was doing. At best, viewers will love to hate it and mock it on the Internet. At worst, a former SBTB cast member’s complaints will fall on deaf ears. The difference with Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B, which is produced by Wendy Williams, is that Aaliyah has a story worth telling. Aaliyah was, and still is, an important figure in R&B. She was so immensely talented that even artists like Missy Elliott and Destiny’s Child were intimidated by her. She was in control of her appearance, her public persona, and her music. She would not have allowed this movie to ever be made about her.
Putting aside the actual quality of the film for a moment, Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B was a mistake from the beginning. It was made without the blessing of her family (according to her cousin Jomo Hankerson, the network never reached out to anyone) and without the rights to her music. Aaliyah’s family tried to stop the film, rightfully believing that Lifetime was not the network to tell Aaliyah’s story. The actress originally cast as Aaliyah, Disney star Zendaya, who was criticized for being biracial and therefore not “black enough” for the role, eventually dropped out because “the production value wasn’t there, there were complications with the music rights, and I just felt like it wasn’t being handled delicately considering the situation.” She was replaced by Nickelodeon actress Alexandra Shipp (most recently seen in Drumline 2: A New Beat), who gets Aaliyah’s basic mannerisms down but doesn’t impress.
There was also controversy surrounding the Missy Elliott role. Canadian actress Chattrisse Dolabaille bears no resemblance to Elliot and, like Zendaya, was criticized for being too light and too thin. The casting directors for Lifetime’s biopics are never too concerned with accuracy, but there is a definite difference between say, a bad wig on the actor playing Zack Morris and the casting of a light-skinned, thin, and petite woman to play a famous dark-skinned, plus-sized woman. It can be seen as a form of erasure, especially when darker and/or heavier women are certainly not getting the bulk of roles in Hollywood.
But make no mistake: Even with the perfect casting, Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B would still be an insulting, disastrous biopic. It starts with a young Aaliyah losing on Star Search, then jumps to her singing with Gladys Knight, getting a record deal, and performing at a high school talent show. The beginning is rushed — slowing down only to include overly long “performance” scenes where Shipp struggles to lip-sync and channel the charismatic Aaliyah — and before we know it, Aaliyah is in the studio trying to win over R. Kelly. And here is where the movie finds its awful, skin-crawling hook: The creepy and illegal marriage between 15-year-old Aaliyah and 27-year-old R. Kelly.
The “secret” marriage was never really a secret, despite how often both of them denied it happened. R. Kelly was Aaliyah’s producer and mentor, and was in a clear position of power over the teenage girl when they married, yet the movie paints their relationship as a sort of forbidden romance, a version of Romeo and Juliet where young Juliet still dies tragically but Romeo eventually gets indicted for 21 counts of child pornography. In the movie, R. Kelly (Cle Bennett) woos Aaliyah, saying cheesy stuff comparing her to the sun, telling her, “I believe we were made for each other” and claiming God brought them together. It’s dialogue that would be vomit-inducing in any run-of-the-mill romantic comedy, but here it’s both gross and upsetting enough to make you want to scrub your skin clean, especially when he tops it off with a mournful, “Just a few more years!” Cut to: Aaliyah telling her parents she got married.
Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B chooses to weight Aaliyah’s romantic life more than her impressive career. Her parents are understandably angry about the marriage — she is still a child, as they say — and force them to get an annulment. Throughout all of this, the movie fails to portray R. Kelly as a predator, even when Aaliyah’s father (Sterling Jarvis) threatens to bring him up on statutory rape charges; instead he’s just a lovestruck old man who sulks and slinks away, losing the teenage love of his life. Aaliyah pines over R. Kelly, mournfully looking at Polaroids, zombie-walking through her high school hallways, and, five years later, telling her mother (Rachael Crawford) that she’s still not over him. “He didn’t hurt me,” Aaliyah tells her father, “You and Mom did.”
There’s a too-brief intermission when Aaliyah has to get to work on her second album with Timbaland (Izaak Smith) and Missy Elliott, and a few scenes about her breaking into the movie business. But then the movie detours back to Aaliyah’s love life, this time focusing on her relationship with Damon Dash (Anthony Grant), with whom she has an instant connection. This remains the focus for almost the entire third act of the film, so much so that even though we know how the movie ends, it’s still somewhat of a surprise because the last few minutes are just about how silly in love they are. It’s so desperate and disgusting: Aaliyah detailing their future plans together and Damon saying, “You better come back to me” as we’re all aware that she’s leaving for the flight that kills her.
Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B doesn’t end on a note about Aaliyah’s career, her music, her acting, or her legacy. Rather, it leaves off on these two characters, implying that the man in her life when she died was far more important than anything else she accomplished. The obnoxious hashtag Lifetime using to promote the move boasts that #TalentIsEternal, but it’s clear the network doesn’t think her talent was of much importance. It’s a loathsome ending for a loathsome movie and a truly low point in Lifetime’s history of low points. I can’t possibly imagine how anyone in Aaliyah’s family must feel watching this movie; I sincerely hope they never do.