As someone who has seen her fair share of biopics recently, I warned myself to keep an open mind when watching Lifetime’s Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B. Considering that I had already written about it ad nauseam, I knew the movie would touch upon the controversial relationship between Aaliyah and R. Kelly, especially since Wendy Williams was one of the executive producers.
During Williams’ radio days, she didn’t mince words when the alleged relationship between the then-26-year-old Kelly and the 15-year-old Aaliyah was exposed. So I knew that the matter would play a huge role in the movie.
Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B takes a look at the young singer’s rise to fame with the help of her uncle Barry Hankerson. Aaliyah (Alexandra Shipp) was primed to be a star by Hankerson (Lyriq Bent), and the movie does a good job of showing that. In one of the few poignant moments in the film, Aaliyah can be seen getting a pep talk from her aunt Gladys Knight (Elise Neal) during an appearance she was making with the legendary singer. Neal, who got only a few minutes of screen time, was actually dead-on as Knight. If there is ever a biopic about Knight, the role should definitely go to Neal—just not on Lifetime, please.
I get it. Controversy sells. And the relationship between Kelly (Clé Bennett) and Aaliyah was not only controversial but also illegal. But I was not expecting the first half of the movie to focus on it.
In an interview with Debra Martin Chase, who was also an executive producer, she said that Kelly played a huge role in Aaliyah’s life, and the relationship needed to be mentioned.
“R. Kelly was a part of her life; she was obviously an important part of his life. His musical influence was incredibly powerful,” Chase stated.
During the controversy surrounding their reported marriage, Aaliyah’s family never confirmed that it actually happened. They did the complete opposite and denied it. In the movie, once they found out she was married to him, they removed him from her life. But before that, there were scenes depicting Aaliyah sneaking around to spend time with Kelly, as well as showing her brother Rashad (A.J. Saudin) confronting her about the relationship.
Christopher Farley, author of Aaliyah: More Than a Woman, the book on which the movie is based, said that although Aaliyah’s family tried to hide the marriage, everything can be verified.
“In my book I mentioned the facts that Vibe magazine published in their story, and if you call the Cook County Clerk office, they have it on record that they were married,” Farley stated.
According to the movie, once the relationship was over, it took Aaliyah five years to get over Kelly, even after seeing a news report of him marrying his backup singer. During that time, her star power increased and she was embarking on her movie career.
In steps Dame Dash, played by Anthony Grant, who looked like he was cast after a visit to the barbershop.
Dash’s portrayal was one of a hothead bad boy who had very little in common with Aaliyah until she was able to break through his tough exterior. Grant didn’t bring life to Dash’s real-life charismatic demeanor, but I guess you make do with what you have.
Another one of the few highlights in the movie was Aaliyah’s relationship with her mother, Diane Haughton (Rachel Crawford). Crawford was able to bring a nurturing quality to the role of her mother. The character wasn’t an overbearing stage mom, as most child stars are surrounded by. The real-life bond between Aaliyah and her mother was extremely strong, and the movie did justice in keeping that aspect true to life.
What most people will notice about the movie is the lack of Aaliyah’s music. Shipp, who is a singer, did sing throughout the movie, but her shrill voice reminds you that she’s no Aaliyah.
From the beginning of the production, Aaliyah’s family threatened the studio and network with lawsuits and were adamant that they wouldn’t support the film. One can assume the family probably didn’t want anything to do with it because they knew that Farley’s book revealed the marriage of Kelly and Aaliyah, and the film would, too.
When Howard Braunstein, another executive producer, was asked why the family didn’t want to be involved, he stated, “We reached out to the family, but they chose not to cooperate; you’ll have to ask them why.”
Braunstein also isn’t afraid of any pending litigation that could prevent the movie from airing on Nov. 15.
All in all, at its best, the movie is yet another mediocre Lifetime production. The controversy presented overshadowed the first half of the movie, and it seems as though Aaliyah’s relationships trumped her talent.
Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B airs Nov. 15 on Lifetime.