Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B
|Based on||Aaliyah: More than a Woman|
by Christopher John Farley
|Written by||Michael Elliot|
|Directed by||Bradley Walsh|
|Country of origin||United States|
|Producer(s)||Debra Martin Chase|
|Editor(s)||David B. Thompson|
|Running time||90 minutes|
|Original release||‹See TfM›|
Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B is a 2014 American biographical television film that was directed by Bradley Walsh and based on the biography Aaliyah: More than a Woman by Christopher John Farley. The film premiered on Lifetime on November 15, 2014, and was met with criticism in its early stages of production due to Aaliyah's family's disapproval of Lifetime's choice to create the film. The film drew 3.2 million viewers upon its premiere, making it the second highest-rated television film of 2014, despite overwhelmingly negative reviews.
In 1989, 10-year-old Aaliyah Haughton, hoping to pursue a career in both acting and singing, makes her debut TV appearance on Star Search performing a rendition of "My Funny Valentine". Aaliyah's mother Diane Haughton once aspired to pursue her own career in singing, but is now wiling to do anything to help her daughter's take off. Aaliyah's uncle Barry Hankerson is a record producer and the founder and owner of record label Blackground Records. After losing Star Search, Hankerson's ex-wife, Gladys Knight requests to perform with Aaliyah during a five-night stint in Las Vegas. In 1991, Aaliyah is informed by her uncle that she has been offered a record deal with Blackground Records and a signing with Jive Records. Aaliyah chooses her stage name as simply "Aaliyah" - like "Cher" or "Madonna" - rather than her full name.
After a successful performance of Bobby Brown's "My Prerogative" at the Detroit High School For Performing Arts, Aaliyah approaches her Uncle Barry at Blackground, eager to take her career to a further level and start recording an album. Hankerson subsequently approaches R. Kelly, one of his biggest clients, to write and produce for his niece. Though Kelly seems disinterested in producing for "just some kid", Hankerson convinces him to come to studio to meet Aaliyah and hear her sing. Upon being introduced to the 14-year-old, Kelly, who has just finished remixing "Any Time, Any Place" for Janet Jackson, shows little engagement and interest, more concerned and preoccupied with other projects. But after performing "Save the Best for Last", Aaliyah wins Kelly's approval to write and produce her album Age Ain't Nothing but a Number. Whilst working together, Aaliyah and Kelly begin to bond and form a close friendship, obliviously falling for each other. Aaliyah's older brother Rashad Haughton begins to suspect that his sister is falling for Kelly, to which she angrily denies.
Upon the release of her debut single "Back & Forth" in May, 1994, Aaliyah becomes a teen success, with "Age Ain't Nothing But A Number" hitting number one, and sets to embark on a European tour with Keith Sweat and Blackstreet. Rumors about Aaliyah and Kelly dating start to spread, and although Aaliyah continues to deny any status beyond friendship with Kelly, she is secretly in love with him, and confesses her love to him upon next visiting her mentor. Kelly subsequently confirms to harbor the same feelings for her as she does for him. It is later revealed that the two illegally married with Aaliyah lying about her age as 18 rather than 15. Aaliyah's angry parents swear to have the marriage annulled and end both of their relationship and threatens to have Kelly charged and arrested with statutory rape otherwise.
Aaliyah is left heartbroken and depressed, isolating herself from her family and refusing to eat, but makes amends with her father, Michael, who forced Kelly out of her life for her own protection. Later on, Aaliyah's Uncle Barry arranges a meeting with his niece, informing her that Blackground's new distributor Atlantic Records has arranged a meeting to discuss plans for her next album. Still depressed and heartbroken, and fearing her second album won't fair as well without Kelly producing for her, Aaliyah commences with her career regardless, remaining as successful and publicly adored as before. Upon meeting with Atlantic Records, Aaliyah requests to work with Timbaland and Missy Elliott, eager to create "a completely new sound" like "nothing on the radio right now". Meanwhile, Aaliyah's heart is crushed once again after discovering through the news that her former lover Kelly is now married to his backing dancer, Andrea Lee.
Later in Los Angeles, Aaliyah and her mother meet with an agent, hoping to take her career to the next level in pursuing some mainstream acting roles (potentially lead). The agent states that it's difficult for black actresses to land leads in big studio movies. Although Whitney Houston succeeded with The Bodyguard, she's of a slightly different music scene to Aaliyah, and starred alongside Kevin Costner, one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Nevertheless, the agent accepts to aid Aaliyah in her acting career, agreeing to take it one step at a time. Aaliyah's second album One in a Million, featuring the single "Got to Give It Up", is released. It ranks very successfully (double platinum in the US) and makes Aaliyah one of the biggest names in music, securing her title as The Princess of R&B. Aaliyah is later approached by her agent and asked to record "Journey to the Past", the theme song to the film Anastasia, which she subsequently performs at the Oscars. She is later offered a role as Trish O'Day in the film Romeo Must Die, co-starring Jet Li. Meanwhile, Aaliyah's mother becomes concerned for her daughter's personal life, and tries to convince her to start dating, but Aaliyah is still disheartened from her separation from Kelly. Aaliyah attends the Hollywood premiere of Romeo Must Die, where she states her next aspired role lies with the upcoming film Queen of the Damned, an adaptation of one of her favorite books.
Following her movie success, Aaliyah moves to New York City where she meets Damon Dash, the two fall in love and become an item. A year later, Aaliyah is set to travel via plane to The Bahamas to shoot a music video for "Rock the Boat", the third and final single from her third (and later final) album, Aaliyah. Damon sees Aaliyah to her limo, the two share a final kiss goodbye, and promise each other, that upon her return, they'll start taking their relationship more seriously, and prioritizing each other over their careers. As the limo drives away off to the airport, Aaliyah waves goodbye and blows a kiss to Damon, who mouths "I love you", to which she mouths in response, "I love you too". The films ends, stating: "On August 25, 2001, after shooting the 'Rock the Boat' music video in the Bahamas, Aaliyah and eight others were killed when their plane crashed shortly after takeoff. She was twenty-two when she died. Her music and legacy will remain in our hearts forever".
- Alexandra Shipp as Aaliyah Dana Haughton
- Clé Bennett as R. Kelly
- Elise Neal as Gladys Knight
- Christopher Jacot as Ryan Nichols
- Chattrisse Dolabaille as Missy Elliott
- Anthony Grant as Damon Dash
- Rachael Crawford as Diane Haughton
- A.J. Saudin as Rashad Haughton (Older)
- Dewshane Williams as Derek Lee
- Elena Juatco as Press Member
- Izaak Smith as Timbaland
- Morgan Kelly as Senior Label Exec
- Lyriq Bent as Barry Hankerson
- Sherton Sanderson as Damon's friend
- Tiffany Davidson as Keisha
In June 2014 Lifetime announced their intent to film a biopic that would focus on the life of Aaliyah. This decision was met with criticism by the singer's family, who did not believe that Lifetime was the best venue for the film and that they did not approve of the production as a whole. As the record label ran by Barry and Jomo Hankerson, Aaliyah's uncle and cousin, held control over the masters to Aaliyah's recordings, they did not allow Lifetime access to that material, resulting in the company having to record covers for the songs used in the film. Four of her songs (two covers) were used in the film: the Isley Brothers' "At Your Best (You Are Love)," Marvin Gaye's "Got to Give It Up," "Journey to the Past" and "The One I Gave My Heart To."
The decision to bring on actress and singer Zendaya to perform as Aaliyah was also met with criticism, as people felt that Zendaya was too light skinned and did not greatly resemble Aaliyah. She later dropped out of the project and the role of Aaliyah was recast with Alexandra Shipp. Zendaya explained her reasons for leaving the production, stating, "The main reason is that the production value wasn't there, there were complications with the music rights, and I just felt like it wasn't being handled delicately considering the situation", also adding she tried contacting the singer's family to no avail. In order to prepare for her role, Alexandra Shipp watched archive footage of Aaliyah and listened to her songs in order to try to mimic her mannerisms and singing voice.
Critical reception to Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B has been predominantly negative. Jon Caramanica of The New York Times panned the film, criticizing it as "ham-handed" and "underwhelming" and writing "Condensing the singer's life into such a short space requires a cruel knife and, in this case, a wildly imprecise one. A good film doesn't show its seams. This one — based on Aaliyah: More Than a Woman, a biography by Christopher John Farley — is mostly seams. Much of the acting has dull edges, and the screenplay is aggravatingly stilted." The Wall Street Journal also criticized the film, commenting that the "overuse of the three and four-way split screen montages only enhanced the lack of material."
Viewer reaction for the film has been extremely negative and fans mocked the film on social media websites, using the hashtags #LifetimeBiopics and #LifetimeBeLike. Viewers felt that Shipp was miscast as Aaliyah, that the late singer's controversial relationship with R. Kelly was overly romanticized, and that the music covers did not do justice to the original songs. Fans further commented on the film's casting as a whole and many created pictures that overly exaggerated what they felt was extreme miscasting of many of the celebrities depicted in the film.
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