Lifetime’s Original Movie, Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B, starring Alexandra Shipp (House of Anubis) as the beloved actress and music sensation, is set to premiere tonight on Saturday, November 15, at 8pm ET/PT.
The two-hour movie is executive produced by Howard Braunstein, Debra Martin Chase and Wendy Williams, and based on the bestseller “Aaliyah: More Than a Woman” by former Time Magazine music editor Christopher John Farley (“Game World”).
With the emergence of several young, female singers today, a movie centered on R&B singer Aaliyah seems to fit right in. “Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B” follows the singer’s life from her performance on “Star Search” to her death. Aaliyah’s family does not support the movie and some of the songs were not available for the filmmakers to use, but executive producer Debra Martin Chase doesn’t think it hindered the film. She says above all, Aaliyah’s life, working towards her dream and conquering obstacles was worth telling. “We wanted to make sure she’s not forgotten,” Chase said.
Aaliyah’s life has been discussed for many years. Her career lasted for a decade, until she died in a plane crash coming back to America after filming a music video in the Bahamas. The film highlights all of the aspects of her career including singing, dancing, modeling, and acting. Farley says that they wanted to make the film because she redefined R&B music. She was seen as masculine, in your face and something new to the music scene. He also says that many artists today have cited Aaliyah as a major inspiration and influence on their work. Howard Braunstein, also an executive producer of the film, says that her life is an influence on society as a whole, and a “positive and important story to tell.”
Though Zendaya was originally the actress chosen to play Aaliyah in the film, Debra notes the way Shipp plays her throughout the years was a critical part of the film. Her progression from from a teenager to a young woman is seen as a highlight. With the retelling of her story the message Farley specifically wants to send out is, young peoples’ lives matter.
We had the opportunity to participate in a conference call with Farley, Braunstein and Chase. Read what they had to say about the project below:
When you realized some music wouldn’t be available, why did you decide to go forward with the film?
Braunstein: Well most of the music was available, there were only a few songs that weren’t available and we have some fantastic songs, then we decided to continue with the story it had a huge impact on our moving forward with the movie.
DMC: 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, you know she was an incredible human being, she led an incredible life in 22 short years and the music is a a complement to that, but really the story we’re telling was a woman overcoming obstacles to fulfill her dream and that’s why people are gonna tune in and hopefully like the movie.
Chris how did you bring this story to Lifetime?
Farley: I came to the story when I first interviewed Aaliyah for Time Magazine and she was someone whose music that I had loved for a long time, she was one of the most dynamic performers on the scene. I put her final album on my top ten list for the year and it was great to talk to her because I thought that she was someone who was breaking ground in style, breaking ground in movies … and of course breaking ground in music, so I wanted to get her in Time Magazine and get the story of her new album in front of our readers and after she passed, I was so distraught over her loss and also the loss of a human being was terrible, also the loss of her music and not knowing where she was gonna go next anymore, I ended up writing a book for MTV books/Simon & Schuster about her life.
Can you speak about Aaliyah’s family not agreeing?
Braunstein: I think Debra summed it up best when she said we’re trying to honor this women and we’re trying to tell the story of her journey and her overcoming obstacles and felt we had enough of the music to still make a terrific film and we were excited about the story we were telling to celebrate her life and honestly we just moved forward, we were really excited about the story we were telling.
Tell us about working working with Alexandra.
DMC: I’ve been doing this for a long time and I find at the end of the day if you have the right intentions and you keep moving forward, you end up where you’re supposed to be and Alex had done an amazing job of capturing Aaliyah of just embodying her and just making the movie shine … Zendaya is fantastic and we have no doubt would have done her version of Aaliyah that would have been great too because she’s extremely talented, but that you know she chose not to proceed and we ended up in a fantastic place with Alex.
Braunstein: And I would just add, because obviously we were on the set a lot, Alex lights up the screen. I think she’s fantastic I think she embodies Aaliyah and I couldn’t have been more excited that she did it in every way.
Can you speak about portraying R. Kelly?
Braunstein: R. Kelly was a part of her life and it’s not the entire movie of course as you said, the first 30 minutes or so but he was a part of her life he was obviously an important part of her life, both emotionally and his musical influence was incredibly powerful and I think the actor who played R. Kelly was really fantastic in my opinion and I hope that viewers and her fans will appreciate all he brought to her life.
DMC: The evidence is there that they were married and we tried to be very tasteful respectful in our portryal.
What about the allegations that they were actually never married?
Farley: As I said, in my book I mention the fact that that Vibe Magazine should be credited here because they broke the story of Aaliyah and R. Kelly being married, they published a wedding certificate and if you call the County Clerk’s office, they have it on record that Aaliyah and R. Kelly were married, so it’s not a matter of fiction or drama, I mean it’s just a fact and it’s part of the public record.
Farley: One reason I thought the story was an important one to tell is because Aaliyah added something new to hip-pop culture, when she was coming up, she was seen as masculine, in your face and she added something fresh. She found love in hip hop rhythm, she found a place for women to raise their voices in hip-hop and then added something fresh and new and helped influence a whole generation of people that came after, including Beyonce, who I talked to for my book, who said that Aaliyah was someone that deeply influenced her with Destiny’s Child so a lot of people you’ve seen today might not be around if it wasn’t for Aaliyah and it’s important to the her story, tell the story of this young black pioneer in music and culture who helped make the progress of other artists possible.
Braunstein: And Chris is so much more articulate than I will be … I will state any chance to show great role models and people who achieve so much through perseverance and true dedication to their crafts and then achieve it is such a great influence on society. Hopefully people will look at the film and say hey I can do that too and try to achieve their goals, I think it’s such a positive and important story that’s just my opinion.
DMC: For all of us but you know for me personally we wanted, to the point of your question, we wanted to make sure she’s not forgotten, you know she has a very active fan base that loves her very much to this day, but for new generations and people who maybe were not really there at her prime, we wanted to make sure they know who she is, what she did, what her legacy is … and just to celebrate a life that was full and rich and gave us so much and was just tragically cut short.
Braunstein: I think you know a lot of that we owe to Alex, it was the huge acting challenge for many different reasons, one of which was to be able to go from 15 to 22 believably and realistically, to show that innocence in the beginning and Alex just did a great job of showing that evolution. I also think the script does a terrific job at following her arc as an artist, you know first she’s a little vulnerable and then she’s not quite as secure in her craft, but by the time she gets to a place that she’s more secure in one of my favorite scenes where she said tell the record executive she wants Missy and Timbaland, you can see how she’s progressed as an artist and getting more confident and I think part of that is reflected both the script and her performance.
Did Alex do her own singing?
Braunstein: Yea she did it herself, she re-recorded, the songs.
You mentioned that Aaliyah has a huge fanbase that still adores her to this day, what would you like audiences to take away about her and what she meant to music and pop culture?
DMC: For me it’s even on more human level … she was just a really special young woman and at the time of her death I was developing “Sparkle” for her and so I had been in communication with her for a few years and I remember we had lunch at The Peninsula a month before she died and she was just a really captivating, charming, smart, really intellectually curious, lovely … she was really special and for me personally and for the team in general we wanted people to realize that this was a tragedy on so many levels but we wanted to convey that.
Farley: You know one thing I was surprised when I interviewed Aaliyah is just her sense of herself and her sense of musical history, her sense of grace and her sense of style. It was a very unique package and just a great role model not only for artists, but for people who listen to her music, so … there are not that many black female celebrities that get celebrated after their death especially young ones and I think it’s important to young people to let them know that her life mattered and celebrating Aaliyah and then celebrating themselves and their time in this earth can have an impact, it can end up in a movie, it can be something that people years after are talking about, blogging about still, writing about and it’s about something that’s more than music and that’s why I was so glad when Lifetime decided to make this movie because I think in a way they’re celebrating all young people and young women out there.
Can someone clarify the status of the movie and Aaliyah’s family?
Braunstein: Sure, we did reached out to them before the movie was filmed and they chose not to cooperate for whatever reasons, you have to ask them and we decided to move forward and that’s the status.
Was this story more personal to you since you had plans to work with her in the future?
DMC: Yes absolutely. Actually, Lifetime came to me they had been thinking about doing a movie on Aaliyah and asked me if I would be interested and I was because you know how when “Sparkle” happened a couple of year ago it had its own tragedy associated with it and in the course of doing the press for “Sparkle” I found myself talking a lot about Aaliyah … And so when I was approached with the opportunity to do the movie, it really was about celebrating her and making sure that she was not forgotten and introducing her story, the inspiration of her life to new generations.
With reporting by Jasmine Harris.