Aaliyah: The Princess Of R&B, Lifetime’s latest geek-show biopic, should not exist. But for a sliver of its two-hour runtime, it’s clear how a person of sound mind could conclude it should.
The fleeting moments of competence and grace come at the tail-end of the film’s most salacious and fraught material. Aaliyah (Alexandra Shipp) is struggling to reassemble her sense of self after being forbidden to see R. Kelly (Clé Bennett) and forced to annul their secret, illegal marriage, which was sealed at a Chicagoland Sheraton when she was 15 and he was 27. It’s hard enough to climb out of the emotional morass created by the permanent loss of your first love—the two reportedly never saw each other again—but Kelly was also the mastermind behind Aaliyah’s hit debut, Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number. In Kelly, Aaliyah lost not only a lover, but her formative musical mentor, the man who helped her realize her dreams of becoming an R&B superstar.
Amid the freefall, Aaliyah’s mother Diane (Rachael Crawford) gives her daughter a much needed pep talk, reminding her she was as much an architect of her success as was Kelly and encouraging her to believe in her ability to forge on without him. When Aaliyah is set to work on her sophomore album, her handlers urge her to record with any number of R&B producers currently on a hot streak. Instead, Aaliyah opts to work with Timbaland and Missy Elliott (Izaak Smith and Chattrisse Dolabaille), then a pair of unknown quantities from Norfolk, Virginia who were as terrified to work with a star on the rise as Aaliyah was by the prospect of finding out Kelly was the magician and she was merely the assistant. The three form an easy bond and churn out One In A Million, still considered the master stroke of Aaliyah’s too-brief career.
Had Princess spent more time on Aaliyah’s rebuilding phase, it would make for a sympathetic film, at least by Lifetime standards, and it would have offered a new take on a familiar throughline. Music history is replete with ingenues who had to outrun a svengali’s shadow, and Aaliyah’s story is particularly triumphant now, given some women who claim they had dalliances with Kelly as teenagers have said the experience drove them to suicide. The limited scope would have also dialed down the sensationalism by trimming the sick-making “courtship.”
More than that, the One In A Million period offers the best example of Aaliyah doing what she did best. Some of her staunchest fans would concede she wasn’t known as a vocal powerhouse. Aaliyah was a well-rounded pop star, and she excelled at doing what pop stars do: conceptualizing an image, a sound and a presentation, finding the right talent to help realize the vision, then performing the hell out of it.
But music biopics almost never focus on a definitive period in a performer’s life. And given that Aaliyah died in a plane crash at only 22, it’s unsurprising for director Bradley Walsh and writer Michael Elliott (working from Christopher John Farley’s biography) to choose to cover a much wider period, beginning with Aaliyah’s debut on Star Search at 10 and ending days before her death.
What is surprising is the producers’ defiant approach to making the film. They soldiered ahead even as Aaliyah’s family objected loudly and withheld rights to her music, leading Zendaya Coleman, the first choice for the leading role, to back out of the project. Celebrity estates always fiercely protect their turf, but in fairness, Aaliyah’s family objected to the film out of concern the network known for such cinematic flotsam as Deadly Spa might not have the most delicate touch.
Shipp’s performance is inoffensive, but no more than that, and what little of Aaliyah’s music makes it to the final film does so in the form of tinny covers that do Aaliyah’s musical legacy no favors. The film spends entirely too much time on Aaliyah’s embryonic acting career, a consequence of working from a life story so regrettably short, there isn’t a need for merciless editing. So many choices in Princess boggle the mind, including the casting of Smith and Dolabaille to play Tim and Missy, which suggests the casting agent has only seen the influential producers in photographs viewed through a kaleidoscope smeared with Vaseline.
It’s hard to defend Princess as anything more than a tabloid take on well-publicized statutory rape, not unlike Lifetime’s Outlaw Prophet: Warren Jeffs, which is especially gross considering the subject matter and the staunch objection of Aaliyah’s family. The movie may be named after her, but its production seems more inspired by another one of its characters, one with a tenuous grasp on the importance of consent.