The Beyoncé and Jay-Z phenomenon is one of the most intriguing Rorschach tests that popular culture has to offer. There are multifarious ways to answer the question, Who are they, really? If your answer is somewhere along the lines of, “the most powerful black couple in the country, save for the Obamas,” you share the view of most Americans and the mainstream media. If you say anything less reverential, you are bound to be offending fans of either artist. But the cultural meaning of this so-called “power couple” is not so black and white. The “On the Run” tour is the latest collaboration in the couple’s 12-year history, which began with the hit “Crazy in Love” and has included their marriage and the birth of their 2½ year-old daughter, Blue Ivy. HBO’s “Beyoncé and Jay-Z On the Run” captures this collaboration in action in Paris, a suitably glamorous locale for the tour’s finale. Anticipation for the film has been heightened by recent buzz about the couple’s status. Rumors of infidelity were sparked in the spring, when footage of Solange Knowles attacking Jay-Z in an elevator surfaced. These rumors were further perpetuated by reports of Beyoncé’s changing the lyrics of “Resentment” during the tour’s Cincinnati show.
Those who are looking for answers to the infidelity question, or even a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the couple and what went into this collaboration, will not find them in the film. ‘On the Run’ proceeds as a straightforward concert film, alternating between performance footage and the elaborate video vignettes that were interspersed throughout the show. Save for the addition of slow motion effects to snippets of the performance footage – which in context seem gratuitous – HBO has laid the concert bare. This approach works well, though, as the show itself is nothing short of stellar.
The duo open together with “03 Bonnie and Clyde”, and continue to alternate solos for the rest of the concert. They also join up for other numbers throughout the show, including “Holy Grail” and the finale mash-up of “On the Run”, “Forever Young”, and “Halo”. Although the show represents an elaborately choreographed tag-teaming effort, it is, for the most part, Beyoncé’s game. Her superb stream of unremitting hits lend themselves to arena performance, complete with technically perfect vocals, full-fledged dance numbers, and a barrage of sequins. Here, as in all things, Queen Bey lives up to her “Flawless” claim. As she puts it in “Bow Down”: “I’m not just his little wife,” making it clear from her set’s start that she in no way intends to step out of the spotlight in order to share the stage with her spouse. Although occasionally Jay-Z’s songs, which he delivers solo onstage, feel like a diversion for Bey’s multitude of costume changes, he too is a commanding performer. His attempts to interact with the audience, which include the initiation of multiple mosh pits near the show’s end, feel entirely accessible.
The show actually features an unexpected third star: the artfully produced series of clips that are interspersed throughout, which cast Jay and Bey as the boss and femme fatale of decidedly American scenes. Most of these are a Bonnie and Clyde homage to highlight the “On the Run” theme of the tour, but they also include scenes of ‘20s-esque intrigue. The clips are employed both during and in-between the performances, and this use makes them feel like integrated elements of the show’s story arc rather than a contrived artifice. The most crowd-pleasing of these clips, however, is the one that is least polished: for the three-song finale, the jumbotron plays a montage of home videos featuring the couple and their daughter.
The moment that critics called into question, in which Beyoncé altered the lyrics of “Resentment”, does not strike the same chord of controversy when viewed in the film. Clad in full bridal regalia, Beyoncé takes the stage solo, and seated, to perform this prettily poignant departure from her stadium-shattering set. Though it may be tempting to read into the costume and the lyrical alterations (which included changing “been riding with you for six years” to “twelve”, and the addition of “that bitch will never be”), Beyoncé’s down-to-earth approach oozes earnestness rather than allusive meaning. Her light-as-air laughter during this number make it entirely clear that the song is just another entertaining element of a carefully constructed show, not a cheating call-out.
The film provides several interpretations of the aforementioned Rorschach test. The couple’s phenomenal popularity can be viewed as a result of their combined talent, which is fully on display here. The complementary nature of this talent may also be a contributor, as is shown in the film. In the songs in which they collaborate, they blend so well that it is sometimes hard to say who is technically the “featured” artist. The multimedia vignettes present yet another possible interpretation: Beyoncé and Jay-Z as the all-powerful, yet all-American couple, adaptable to nearly any role. The interpretation that is perhaps the best explanation, however, is the one elucidated by the mutual affection and respect between the two that is displayed at the film’s end. The two thanked both the audience, and each other, as their personal film footage came to a close. “I couldn’t dream of anything else than being in a stadium with the woman I love,” said Jay-Z, “who I believe is the greatest entertainer of our time.” In spite of any rumors, the two genuinely appear to be extremely in love, and the fact that they are willing to share that life and love with their fans is what renders them compelling.