By Diedre Johnson
The beautiful but doomed ‘90’s R&B icon known as Aaliyah has fascinated music lovers since the tragic plane crash that caused her untimely death. Now, television network Lifetime is bringing her fascinating story to life, in a new docu-drama focusing on her success as an artist, a fashion icon, and a superstar of film and television.
The movie is being produced by former radio and now TV talk show hostess Wendy Williams, Howard Braunstein and Debra Martin Chase, and is based on the book,Aaliyah: More Than a Woman by former Time Magazine music editor, Christopher John Farley. “She was someone whose music I have loved for a long time,” says Farley, who interviewed her shortly before her tragic death in 2001.
Farley describes what it was like to meet the young star, saying “I thought she was one of the most dynamic performers on the scene at that time. I put her album on my Top 10 List for the year, and so it was great to talk to her. I thought she was someone who was breaking ground in style, in music, and she was breaking ground in movies, as I would find out. So I wanted to get her in Time and get the story of her new album in front of our readers.”
He added, “After she passed, I was distraught over her loss. The loss of a human being which is terrible, but also the loss of her music, and not knowing where her story was going to go next anymore. I ended up writing a book about her life for MTV Books/Simon & Schuster.
For those who don’t know the young star, Aaliyah Dana Haughton, aka Aaliyah was the precursor of Rhianna, Beyonce, Ciara, Rita Ora and so many other singing, dancing R&B-tinged pop divas that have come along after her.
A beauty with a slim, shapely figure, who often wore tank tops, tight leather pants or jeans, multiple rings on her fingers,and also sported tattoos, colored sunglasses and wore her hair blown straight and seductively hanging over one eye, Aaliyah was there first, debuting her first hit album Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number in the early 1990s, when she was a mere 14 years old!
At that young age, Aaliyah already knew exactly what she, and her budding fans, wanted to see in her music, videos and live performances. She also nailed it in the recording studio, and was even capable to represent herself in negotiations with musicians and music business executives. In addition, Aaliyah was also among the early stars to work in the studio with hip hop artists such as Nas, Kris Kross, Da Brat, R Kelly, Lil Kim, Timbaland and Missy Elliot.
Aaliyah’s Timbaland/Elliot collaboration on her second album would propelled all three of them to stardom, and also assured the music industry that Aaliyah wasn’t a one-hit-wonder, but an artist willing to stretch and play with her image as she matured.
After Grammy nominations and winning various Billboard and MTV Video awards, she was offered and took two movie roles, Romeo Must Die with Jet Li and Queen of the Damned, the latter of which was released after her death. She was also reportedly scheduled to star in the sequel to the first Matrix movie had she lived. With all of this and more happening, it seemed her career was set to skyrocket, before tragedy struck.
All of this is covered in the upcoming Lifetime movie, but like in her tragic life, the film pursued the same labored road to production. Since her family holds the rights to her music, did not have any input into the movie and withheld the rights, long-time fans will notice that there are no Aaliyah vocals anywhere in the movie, and nothing of her on soundtrack music.
Since it was her vocal approach to the hip hop beats in her music that set the singer apart from her contemporaries, it’s hard to see the movie without a sample of the real thing, even though star Alexandra Shipp gives an on-point performance on Aaliyah covers such as Marvin Gaye’s Got to Give It Up and on her original tunes such as At Your Best, You Are Love. Of all that’s missing as a result, the most glaring is still her original music.
Still, executive producer Howard Braunstein disagrees. “Most of the music was available,” he says, and there were only a few songs that weren’t available, and we had some fantastic songs that we decided to continue with the story with. It didn’t have a huge impact on our moving forward with the movie,” he adds.
Producer Debra Chase met Aaliyah shortly before her death to discuss her starring in the remake of the R&B musical, Sparkle, which was later made with singer Jordin Sparks. It fueled Chase’s passion to see Aaliyah’s life depicted in a movie. The fact that the late singer’s family didn’t approve nor want certain music included, did not deter her.
Chase explains, “In that moment what we realized is that we’re making this movie to pay tribute to Aaliyah the woman, as well as the artist. She was an incredible human being. She led an incredible life in 22 short years and the music is a complement to that. But really the story we’re telling is the story of a woman overcoming obstacles to fulfill her dream, and that is why people, hopefully, are going to tune in and watch the movie.”
To those of us who have seen the film, it’s clear that Shipp’s vocals and energetic dance routines mirror the late singer perfectly. A former Nickelodeon child star, Shipp does a great job of channeling the late artist, getting her wickedly witty facial expressions down and playing up many of her signature dance moves. Her performance is moving, playing on the strengths of what Aaliyah was reported to be like, while also showing the vulnerability of someone still growing up emotionally, while dealing with her very big, successful career.
It is when Shipp is performing the familiar hits from other artists that a viewer realizes that all of her music was important to the story. Throughout the music and dance scenes, one is left holding their breath waiting for that signature song and instead … they get an overly-stylized version of Aaliyah singing Bobby Brown’s 1988 hit song My Prerogative.
One can wonder if Zendaya, the singer/actress (and former Disney child star) originally tapped to play Aaliyah would have done any better (Coleman dropped out the Aaliyah movie in June 2014 saying, “Basically, I felt that because I love her and I respect her so much as an artist, I don’t want to do anything that’s half or anything that’s less.”)
“I find that at end of the day, if you have the right intentions, all ends up where it’s supposed to be,” offers Chase, adding “Alex (Shipp) has done an amazing job of capturing Aaliyah and embodying her and just making the movie shine. Obviously, we started with Zendaya. Zendaya is fantastic and no doubt would have done her version of Aaliyah, which would have been great too. She’s extremely talented but she chose not to proceed and we ended up in a fantastic place with Alex.”
Other principal characters such as Aaliyah’s parents are played by Rachel Crawford and Sterling Jarvis. Crawford, a Canadian actress may be familiar to audiences of the sci-fi series When Night Is Falling or The Man and Jarvis, also a Canadian actor, has appeared in many US television series including The West Wing, Suits andCovert Affairs. Both do convincing jobs as concerned and yet proud parents, who realize that they have a daughter with incredible talent.
For those who don’t know this piece of Aaliyah trivia, Gladys Knight was Aaliyah’s aunt by marriage. In fact, in real life, Knight played a pivotal role in getting Aaaliyah started, as she introduced the then-former Star Search contestant to her first live audience by inviting the little girl to sing onstage with her in Las Vegas.
Finally, no story of Aaliyah would be complete without mentioning her early producer and mentor, R. Kelly, who is played very sexily and romantically by Cle Bennett (Rookie Blue). One can only look back with nostalgia, at a time when Kelly’s reputation had not yet been tainted with numerous underage sex allegations.
However, the subject of Aaliya’s and R. Kelly’s long-rumored marriage, when she was only fifteen, is covered. “He was obviously an important part of her life, both emotionally and his musical influence was incredibly powerful, and I hope viewers and her fans will appreciate all he brought to her life,” says Braunstein.
While the Kelly reveal may answer some of the singer’s many fan’s questions, her unexpected and sudden death can’t help make one wonder about what might have been. And a new movie about Aaliyah is a really nice tribute. After all, the 22-year-singer had achieved world renown, fame and huge success, and was at the top of her artistic game when her life was cut short in that deadly plane crash in the Bahamas on August 25, 2001.
As a result of this intriguing film, one cannot help wonder what might have been if Aaliyah was still here, brightening all our lives with her graceful personae, beautiful music, and unforgettable voice.
Do not miss the upcoming 2-hour tv event “Aaliyah, The Princess of R&B”, set to premiere on Saturday, November 15th at 8/7c on Lifetime!