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The Real Tragedy Of Lifetime’s Aaliyah Movie Is The Exploitation Of Her Legacy

A TV movie that nobody asked for and nobody wants to see.

November 15, 2014

On August 25, 2001, R&B singer/songwriter Aaliyah Dana Haughton and eight others—Luis Morales III, Anthony Dodd, Eric Foreman, Scott Gallin, Keith Wallace, Gina Smith, Douglas Kratz, and Christopher Maldonado—died in a tragic plane crash shortly after takeoff at Marsh Harbour Airport in the Bahamas' Abaco Islands. I was 14 years old when I heard the news on a school bus heading home from marching band camp. I was falling asleep with headphones on as I faintly heard the news on the bus' radio; When I woke up later, I figured it was just a dream I had, until TV news back home made it clear that, no, it wasn't.

"You think tragedy's not gonna happen, but tragedy does happen," music mogul Damon Dash, who was romantically involved with Aaliyah before her passing, told The Combat Jack Show last year. Indeed, on a cultural level Aaliyah's death felt like a substantial loss; she released three studio albums in seven years and much of that recorded output could today be considered canonical for the period of time it represents in its genre. Her final album, 2001's self-titled bow, is the rare document that still sounds singular and futuristic more than a decade after initial release. Aaliyah was one of a few R&B artists who were responsible for fusing the genre's sound with the gritty, growing relevance of hip-hop, a sonic shift that is still felt to this very day—it's hard to imagine Tinashe's smoothed-out ratchet-R&B or the electro-hybrid abstractions of Kelela and FKA Twigs existing without the strides Aaliyah made within R&B's framework.

So Aaliyah's brief, deeply felt legacy is of the sort that deserves a sort of careful reverence—which, in recent years, it has not received. There were plans for a second posthumous album (the first being 2002's I Care 4 U), with alleged contributions from Drake, Timbaland, and Missy Elliott that were scuttled after Aaliyah's mother allegedly voiced her disapproval to producer Noah "40" Shebib. Her voice popped up this year on Chris Brown's long-delayed album X; Timbaland would later criticize Drake and Brown's involvement to Revolt. "Aaliyah music only work with its soulmate, which is me."

There's a planned feature film, with the involvement of Aaliyah's uncle and former manager Barry Hankerson, in the works for a 2015 release—but, for now, we have Aaliyah: the Princess of R&B, the much-discussed TV biopic that makes its debut tonight on Lifetime. Aaliyah: the Princess of R&B has been an especially beleaguered production, facing everything from miscasting outcries to threats of legal action from Aaliyah's family. It's not so much a TV movie that nobody asked for as it is one that nobody wants to see.

Despite its controversial aura, though, Aaliyah: the Princess of R&B is a relatively tame work, muted and inoffensive with one major exception (we'll get to that in a minute). Directed by Bradley Walsh (whose last Lifetime credit is the 2012 true-crime flick A Killer Among Us), the Michael Elliot (Just Wright, Brown Sugar)-written script is based off of Farley's book, which itself reads as a cursory, padded-out glance at Aaliyah's life peppered with objective digressions and questionable generalizations.

Regardless, in terms of faithfulness to its source material, Aaliyah: the Princess of R&B occasionally hits the mark, from highlighting a young Aaliyah's idolizing of Barbara Streisand's own multifaceted career ("Acting, singing—she does it all," she once said in an interview, as Farley's bio notes) to straightforwardly portraying her close familial ties and middle-class upbringing. That said, plenty of details—details that could've provided deeper insight into what kind of a person Aaliyah was—are discarded: the fact that she bought the dress she wore to the 1998 Oscars off the rack at a mall outside of Detroit, or her prodigious training at the Detroit High School for Fine and Performing Arts. The depiction of Aaliyah's admittedly short-lived film career, involving roles in the 2000 action flick Romeo Must Die and 2002's Anne Rice adaptation Queen of the Damned, is reduced to a few meetings with a talent agent and a cake with "The Matrix" written on it, alluding to her sadly unrealized casting in the film franchise's second and third films.

When it comes to factual portrayal, though, the most egregious element of Aaliyah: the Princess of R&B is its treatment of Aaliyah's short-lived romantic relationship with one-time mentor R. Kelly, which culminated in an alleged 1994 marriage when the former was 15 years old, the latter 27 years of age. The film portrays the relationship and subsequent separation as a tale of lost love between two people who had an honest, respectful relationship with one another—a reach, considering Farley's bio grants the subject a few pages with little in the way of concrete information, as well as the fact that in recent years, R. Kelly's many alleged sexual, criminal transgressions have again come to light. Court documents from the time of his and Aaliyah's alleged entanglement (which were recently summed up in music critic Jim DeRogatis' review of the movie) have suggested the relationship was predatory rather than simply star-crossed—a threatening, disturbing notion that Aaliyah: the Princess of R&B conveniently, despicably eliminates from the late star's narrative. (And maybe Lifetime agrees: any mention of R. Kelly or the actor who plays him, Cle Bennett, is conspicuously missing from the film synopsis included in the film's press materials.)

The film's more basic, cosmetic flaws are abundant—there's shoddy acting across the board, from Nickelodeon multi-talent Alexandra Shipp's shoulders-shrugged portrayal of the titular singer (the producers' second choice, after Disney star Zendaya bowed out following an avalanche of public outcry) to Bennett's platitude-soaked performance as Kelly. It should be noted that Bennett doesn't come close to resembling Kelly in any particular way, and the much-maligned casting choices of Izaak Smith as Timbaland and Chattrisse Dolabaille as Missy Elliott come off as more evidence that there wasn't much thoughtput into the film's finer details—and why should we expect differently? On-the-quick production values and canned dialogue have long been hallmarks of Lifetime's notorious TV movies, sometimes to the point of amusement.

This film's desire to have it both ways, though—to retain a sense of reverence while remaining impossibly unauthorized as a biographical work—ultimately makes for a boring, disaffected watch, as well as a slight to Aaliyah's legacy and her many fans and admirers. Lifetime TV movies often thrive on notoriety—see: the cult-successful Flowers in the Attic franchise, as well as the recent tell-all The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story—and Aaliyah: the Princess of R&B has garnered similar attention through its many points of controversy and mining of the endless well of 1990s nostalgia. We'll see how many people actually tune in, but regardless of the film's quality, Lifetime and the producers' use of a deceased pop luminary's image and backstory to attempt gaining notoriety and, ultimately, high ratings is the truest, saddest tragedy sitting in the center of this film's frigid, banal heart.

Photos credit: Christos Kalohoridis/Lifetime

The Real Tragedy Of Lifetime’s Aaliyah Movie Is The Exploitation Of Her Legacy