A music video is not a short musical. Lemonade, identifying itself as a visual album, is not a music video (or a string of them) and it is not a musical. It borrows something from all of those mediums, with directors Knowles, Rimmasch and Åkerlund instinctively understanding how to mix and match. Lemonade is a performance, but not a film performance. It is a spectacle, but never a garish one. It’s an event, meant to be experienced as one, meant to be shared as one; it initially aired on HBO. There’s just so much going on at once with it.
Lemonade runs just under an hour. Knowles narrates, the narration adapted from Warsan Shire’s poems. The narration explains, the songs explore. But there’s the other, visual layer. It’s not just a music video because there’s cohesion between the numbers (in some ways, Lemonade might be be described as a musical video essay). Knowles is working towards something beyond the “narrative,” which involves a woman discovering and reacting to her husband’s infidelity.
It’s not the story of her self-discovery; she’s already self-discovered. It’s about her rage and joy and sadness and thoughtfulness and compassion. Lemonade is all about compassion, it’s all about understanding. It’s about Knowles’s “protagonist” ruminating, through the songs, through the visuals, questions of her very existence. Except it’s not subtextual questioning. Lemonade isn’t about being a superstar and questioning that existence, it’s about Knowles exploring the questions of being an African-American woman in the United States. Lemonade takes itself very seriously, as it well should.
The directors employ multiple aspect ratios to fantastic effect. They’re guiding the viewers, presenting each song, each visual sequence, for the viewer’s intelligent consumption. It’s impossible to imagine not paying attention to Lemonade. But Knowles, Rimmasch and Åkerlund know how to keep it inviting. Editor Bill Yukich does peerless work here–every cut is outstanding, whether it’s between aspect ratio, shots of the same sequence, shots from different sequences. It’s beyond graceful.
To put it in terms of film jargon, Lemonade is a little like if you made a musical version of a twenty-first century Terrence Malick movie, only employing mostly tone and narration devices from Badlands. The filmmaking has to hit a consistent level of precision in order for its sincerity to work. And the sincerity is the goal, which just makes the filmmaking more ambitious.
To be hyperbolic (but accurate), you don’t watch Lemonade as much as experience it. It captivates visually and narratively. Only the narrative turns out to be a lot different than what the first act implies. Though act isn’t the correct term, because Lemonade sort of creates itself as it goes along.
It’s very difficult to explain; you’d just have to see it. And you should.
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