The screen over the stage read, “This is not real life.”
And Beyoncé and Jay Z underscored the fiction in their show Sunday night in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, despite recent speculation that the onstage drama had some basis in fact.
The concert was part of their “On the Run” tour, which takes its name from a black-and-white film shot for the tour that presents two of the wealthiest, most powerful entertainers in show business as outlaws in love. Scenes from it screened throughout the show to give it loose thematic coherence.
On paper, there were many ways for the Beyoncé and Jay Z concert to go off course, starting with that concept, but their talent kept the show from sinking in ego and pretense.
After the opening scene, the duo walked onstage together to perform “’03 Bonnie and Clyde,” the song from his “The Blueprint 2: The Gift & the Curse” from 2002.
It was the song that first presented the two to the world as a couple who would finally marry in 2008, and it seemed to inspire the movie.
After that, the two alternated songs and performance styles.
She brought out dancers to perform “Crazy in Love” complete with a group booty shake leaning on a rail that magically emerged from the stage floor, then Jay Z returned to patrol a gimmick-free stage by himself for a quick snippet of Kanye West’s “Diamonds of Sierra Leone” before segueing into “Tom Ford.”
For much of the show, the easy grooves and lack of drama made his songs the ones the audience partied to, but Beyoncé’s were the ones they had to see.
He bounced through his songs while she worked hard amid elaborate production elements, doing intense, physical dance routines that were impressive, but the emotions of the songs meant that they were rarely fun.
She seemed cast in the role of the one dealing with the pain of their cinematic and onstage relationship, whether wounded or fierce.
The two were generous with their time and talents, playing at least part of more than 40 songs in roughly two hours, though the show had some rote moments as some of Beyoncé’s songs seemed more like soundtracks to routines than ideas set to music.
It wasn’t until “If I Were a Boy” late in the show that she sang without an ensemble choreography passage. There, the R&B singer in her surfaced for the first time, and her emotions came into clearer focus.
If the couple on stage weren’t Beyoncé and Jay Z, it would have been easy to be snarky about the show. Evidently Beyoncé’s hair doesn’t go anywhere without a fan, and a perplexing passage in the movie juxtaposing sex and stolen money would have invited “Mystery Science Theater 3000” wisecracks if it wasn’t for their star power and savvy.
But while the film was derivative and puzzling at times, neither it nor the show ever crossed over into silly.
Beyoncé introduced the final segment of the concert when she announced from offstage, “Forgiveness is the final act of love,” then performed the least forgiving song of the night.
The ballad “Resentment” has prompted speculation about the state of their relationship as she has adjusted the lyrics of the song — sung to an unfaithful lover — to include possible references to her relationship with Jay Z.
She sang it in a wedding dress, seated alone at the edge of a stage in the audience, which made it the emotional centerpiece of the show, even though it was immediately followed by a buoyant series of songs including “Love on Top,” his “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” and her “Single Ladies.”
In the movie, they die in the end, accompanied by the onscreen message, “Die in love and live forever.” For the final act, the two dressed in white and went out to the stage in the audience where white lights from overhead encircled them.
It looked like they might ascend to the heavens for a moment, but instead they performed his “Forever Young” and turned to face the video screen, where they watched home movies of their daughter Blue Ivy while Beyoncé sang the show-closing “Halo.”
Much of the show was impressive, starting with the ease of Jay Z’s charisma and Beyoncé’s powerful physical presence.
They also have a lot of good songs, and they aren’t afraid to rearrange them for the stage.
The film didn’t always work, but the ambition to do something other than a simple greatest-hits show merits some love. By adding an additional narrative that might or might not be true to the one created by the tabloids, they highlighted the degree to which we don’t know them.
After Sunday night, we still don’t.