Tribeca Opening-Night Review: Jennifer Lopez Documentary ‘Halftime’

“It takes a while to warm up to me,” says Jennifer Lopez in a pep talk to the troupe of admirably stoic dancers she’s been putting through the wringer for several months. The same is true of Amanda Micheli’s documentary Halftime, a scattershot and largely anodyne portrayal of the actress-singer that snatches enough intimate moments to just about pass muster as more than PR fluff.

From the outset, it seems to be fighting a losing battle with relevance, since the time period it deals with—the run-up to JLo’s halftime show with Shakira at the 2020 Super Bowl in Miami—now seems such a very long time ago after Covid, Black Lives Matter and the last days of Donald Trump’s presidency (not to mention this year’s show with Dr. Dre, Eminem, Snoop Dogg and Mary J. Blige). The climactic moments do pay off, however, proving that Lopez’s pontifications about mounting a Latina-celebrating girl-power spectacular aren’t just hot air.

Micheli’s doc, which had its world premiere as the opening-night film of the Tribeca Festival, opens at such a pace it causes narrative whiplash, starting the countdown to the Super Bowl show in July 2019 and simultaneously tracking Lopez’s bumpy ride through awards season after the Toronto Film Festival premiere of Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers in September the same year. An early attempt to weave in Lopez’s deprived but happy childhood seems perfunctory—a clip of the Sweet Charity song “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This” and she’s out of the family home in the grey boredom of the Bronx, aged just 18. Happily, Micheli does return to the family later, in an unstaged Thanksgiving dinner that, while not exactly filling any gaps, does allude to the kind of tensions that arise when a strong-willed mother instils the same values in her daughter.

There are several Jennifer Lopezes in the film, which is fitting since its subject enthusiastically embraces her own multiplicity, often referring to her musical persona (JLo) in the third person. Music and dancing seem to be her focus and her passion, and one gets the impression that she had rather forgotten about her acting career until Hustlers brought with it a deserved awards buzz that, as we see here, crushingly fizzled out before the Oscars (it’s somewhat ironic that Halftime is brought to you by Netflix, who bankrolled that year’s winner in Lopez’s category: Laura Dern in Marriage Story). The real, largely stone-faced, Lopez cries several times in the film, notably when reading a glowing review of her performance in Hustlers, but she rarely laughs, and it’s tempting to wonder if a sense of humor might be the most important thing missing from her otherwise impressive armory. One brief montage reminds us of her heyday as headline fodder in supermarket tabloids (a protective Ben Affleck provides the only, fleeting testimony from Lopez’s gallery of boyfriends), another highlights the toxic mix of casual racism and sexism that dogged her for wearing outfits that accentuated her curves. Surprisingly, as well as a pop and movie star, Lopez is also happy to be seen as a working mother, and her teenage daughter is an unexpectedly un-precocious presence in her mother’s company.

All this information tends to crowd out what Lopez is building towards—a stage show that will rebut the Trump administration’s dehumanizing attitude to Latinx people, with hordes of little girls bursting out of symbolic cages singing her 1999 hit “Let’s Get Loud.” If we didn’t already know how it went down, a climax featuring the Stars and Stripes, the flag of Puerto Rico and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” might have been a recipe for disaster of Spinal Tap proportions, but somehow those delirious 14 minutes worked, led from the front by the tireless Lopez. But, bizarrely, straight after this comes a dour and rather clumsy coda that fast-forwards a year into an America without Trump, now dominated by Covid (Ms. Lopez’s facemask is, naturally, pristine white and silken). As she sings “This Land is Your Land” for Joe Biden’s inauguration, we are invited to ponder on Lopez’s philanthropic achievements, and after the previously modest buffet of biographical details, this sudden slew of new info feels like a force-feeding of raw veg.

Still, subtlety was never JLo’s forte, and while Halftime won’t win any new fans—or any awards, for that matter—it does, like the 2020 Taylor Swift film Miss Americana, show that, sometimes, even the most controlled of documentaries can’t help but tell the truth.

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