At the outset of On The Run, the concert film commemorating Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s joint tour from this summer, a disclaimer appears: “THIS IS NOT REAL LIFE,” it warns, before introducing its principals, “The Queen” (Bey) and “The Gangster” (Jay).
That note is appropriate to On The Run, stitched together from Bey and Jay’s pair of performances in Paris earlier this month. Running just over two and a half hours, the show barrels through more than 40 of the pair’s collected hits, often sequencing them cannily; Jay-Z’s caustic “99 Problems” is counterbalanced by his wife’s sneakily scornful “If I Was A Boy,” while the triumphs of “Love On Top” and “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” flow into each other through the power of a shared Jackson 5 snippet. Thanks to some crafty editing, the Jonas Akerlund-directed concert film has a bit of an enhanced-realism feel — dancers stay suspended in midair for slightly longer than physics would allow, Beyoncé’s hair whips around her in rhythm. But the subjects demand nothing less; Mr. and Mrs. Carter could be part of the American aristocracy, among those rarefied single-name stars whose personal lives pop up in the conversations of people many degrees of separation away.
If On The Run were a competition, Mrs. Carter would handily best her Mr. in the all-around, thanks to her dancing, her vocal prowess, and the occasional surprises sprouting from left-field arrangements of her biggest hits. But the Beyoncé-Jay pairing has always been a partnership, and On The Run both honors this ideal and plays around with the public perception of it; after all, chatter about the veracity of Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s romance has been constant since the two first paired up a decade-plus ago.
Those questions seem to boil down to an idea of believability, of fairness: Is it possible for the perfect marriage—where two people are not just equals, but are seemingly thrilled to exist at the same level—to be inhabited by two people who already have talent, money, fame, admiration, and a slew of other things going for them?
Beyoncé and Jay have both devoted large chunks of their career to saying “yes”; the On The Run tour, which had 21 sold-out stops this summer, came after a long history of them collaborating and giving each other shine whenever the opportunity arose. In a 2008 interview, Bey told Essence, “We decide everything. My word is my word. What Jay and I have is real. It’s not about interviews or getting the right photo op. It’s real.” That notion of the "real” has held up over time, with public perceptions of it shaped by onstage pregnancy announcements, perfectly framed Instagrams, and award-show-audience clips; any rumors of trouble exist in private and only sometimes make it to the gossip pages, thanks to both Carters possessing a remove from the audience that’s unusual in the era of artists DMing their faithful or leaving supportive comments on fans’ Instagram photos. (Beyoncé’s resolve to let her music do most of her talking has resulted in a particularly fervent fanbase popping up around her, and sometimes acting as yet another protective layer.)
And so when news broke that Jay had been attacked by Beyoncé’s sister Solange in a New York hotel elevator, the vultures descended; finally, a crack in the façade that had been unsuccessfully probed by hundreds of blind items and MediaTakeOut stories, one that wedged ever wider with each whisper to Page Six and rumor-based thinkpiece. Students of celebrity gossip — which at this point counts anyone who’s stood in a checkout line long enough to scan tabloid headlines, or who’s scrolled past an online story to see the scandal-riddled teasers for stories You Might Also Like according to an algorithm—are probably aware of the impulse behind these stories; as a wise woman once sang, “Perfection is the disease of a nation.”
If nothing else, On The Run represents a remarkable synergy between the gossip press’s post-elevator-incident frenzy and the attempts to build tension within the narrative arc of the show, which casts Beyoncé and Jay-Z as a criminally minded couple facing ups and downs. A few moments could have been outtakes from the breathless thinkpieces anticipating the implosion of the Carter family; during “Flawless,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie saying “Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage” is punctuated by the “eff you, pay me” from “Run The World (Girls),” and the line about “shit go[ing] down when it’s a billion dollars on an elevator” from that track’s Nicki Minaj-assisted remix remains intact. Later, shots of Beyoncé as a desperate, martini-swilling housewife, culled from the Solange-directed clip for “Why Don’t You Love Me,” are intercut with increasingly desperate voicemails to a non-responsive Jay that culminate with Bey spitting out the (admittedly pretty great) insult “Nothing’s open at 3 in the morning but legs.”
But the trouble is short-lived, coming to a resolution after both sides spill their guts a bit. (Jay-Z’s humbled “Song Cry,” from The Blueprint, results in a touching moment.) “Love is an act of endless forgiveness,” Beyoncé utters over an interlude that rewinds the show’s more violent interstitial imagery: the crime, the gunfire, the car chases. The celebration of the superficial — the money, the power, the infamy — that spooled over the show’s first two hours was reversed; the real replaced the fake, the valedictory was swapped in for the bank-heist dress-up.
Even the choice of venue for the tour’s close was picked with the couple’s history in mind: “This place is special to us. We got engaged here; our baby Blue was conceived here. It’s a magical city!” Jay exclaimed before the climactic performance of “Part II (On The Run).” The languorous track — during which Jay exclaimed “This is real life!” — was followed by a mashup of Jay’s Alphaville-interpolating “Young Forever” and Beyoncé’s besotted “Halo,” accompanied by home movies of happy moments; it progressed from hotel-room flirtations to their marriage, to Beyoncé’s pregnancy and, finally, a bunch of aww-inducing footage chronicling the birth and early childhood of Blue Ivy.
After that montage of familial bliss — highlighted by Jay being goofy and Bey glowing with maternal love — the pair kissed, then walked from one stage to the other in a matter that recalled a wedding recessional; the grateful speeches at the very end could have been tweaked toasts from a reception. “I’m your biggest fan; I love you so much,” Beyoncé says to Jay, who replies, “I wanna say it’s been an honor and a pleasure to share this stage with you; I couldn’t dream of anything else, being in a stadium with the woman I love, who I believe is the greatest entertainer of our time.”
While the happy tableau offered by On The Run’s closing moments is more “real life” than the fantastical interludes preceding it, those images don’t represent the entire picture — but even without transparency, the ideal of standing by your partner, and being awed by their greatness, is one that’s certainly worth aspiring to, whether your elevator contains billions or pennies.
Maura Johnston lives in Boston, where she writes for the Boston Globe, Rolling Stone, and Wondering Sound. She teaches at Boston College and has seen Beyonce cameo at a Jay-Z show but not vice versa. She tweets at @maura.