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"I always battle with 'How much do I reveal about myself?'" says Beyonce in her new HBO documentary, Beyonce: Life Is but a Dream (Saturday, 9 p.m. ET). "How do I stay current? How do I stay soulful?"
Beyonce has, arguably, become our greatest pop luminary. She was the most talked about entertainment at the inauguration, not to mention the Super Bowl halftime show. She's the face of Pepsi and L'Oreal, and, when touring, her name appears on hundreds of stadium marquees across the world. She's even married to Jay-Z, the most famous rap star on Earth!
But all the polish and production values do have one drawback. Even her biggest fans don't know her that well, and that clearly bothers Beyonce: “People see celebrities, they have money and fame, but I’m a human being,” she says in the film. “I cry, I get scared, I get nervous just like everyone else.”
At the same time, she's fiercely determined not to be used. "People are taking pictures of you and exploiting your personal life as entertainment," she says. "When Nina Simone put out a record, you fell in love with her voice. ... But you didn't get brainwashed by her day-to-day life, and what her child was wearing and who she is dating -- all things that are really not your business. It shouldn't influence the way you listen to the voice and the art, but it does."
Her response to all this is a documentary in which she shares personal information of her choosing, in the way she chooses to share it. And amidst a lot of performance footage, Life Is but a Dream does address personal topics, often with a makeup-less Beyonce (a revelation in itself) talking directly into a laptop camera. She gives fans a glimpse of how she deals with the pressure associated with being on top in her field: "I felt like I had become so commercially successful, and it wasn't enough," she says. "It's something really stressful about having to keep up with that." She also ruminates about what it was like dealing with a miscarriage before the birth of her daughter, Blue Ivy, in 2012. Beyonce plays a song about the experience, which she calls "the saddest song I've ever written in my life." These are the conversations and concerns of everyday women, and seeing such a strong, successful role model share her experiences is empowering.
But perhaps the most compelling footage comes when the singer speaks plainly about controversies in her life. No matter how tightly she controls her message, negative stories have leaked to gossip magazines, and Beyonce addresses some of them head on. She talks about firing her manager father, Matthew Knowles, who created and guided her career from the time she was 8 years old. Told from her perspective only, the account doesn't feel gossipy, just sad. She also responds to the allegation that she didn't carry her daughter by showing off the sonogram photos and her baby bump.
Fans will probably most appreciate the scenes of family gatherings with Jay-Z and a few private moments on vacation with him. Yes, the personal moments she shares are of her own choosing, but for a celebrity who's so famously guarded, they feel striking -- and generous.