I remember Aaliyah in a tan jumpsuit, spinning and smiling. She was singing her version of ‘Journey to the Past’ for Anastasia’s soundtrack (dir. Don Bluth & Gary Goldman, 1997). (My family accrued serious mileage on that movie’s VHS.) She was radiant in Journey’s music video, and not only thanks to the stellar handiwork of post-production. The woman had a self-contained light — a charm that cameras loved.
Aaliyah was more than a music-star. (She didn’t study drama in high school for nothing.) As an actress-chanteuse, she moved with story and rhythm. She slid from the elliptical R&B of her discography to the metallic cityscapes of Romeo Must Die (dir. Andrzej Bartkowiak, 2000) and Queen of the Damned (dir. Michael Rymer, 2002) without missing a beat. If she’d lived long enough, she would have brought similar prowess to The Matrix: Reloaded (2003) and the Sparkleremake (delayed to 2012 due to her death).
Aaliyah wore vampiric cool like a second skin. In Romeo Must Die, she emerged from the grunge of 1990s neo-soul as a streetwise fighter. In her performance as Trish O’Day, she was a well-rounded action-heroine — clever, sensitive, sultry and strong, like so many Black women. She had an enviable chemistry with her co-star Jet Li (who played Han Sing). The movie’s soundtrack (executive-produced by Aaliyah herself) captured the smooth futurism of the new millennium, enhancing the film’s fresh tone.
In Queen of the Damned, Aaliyah made a regal, supernatural turn as the titular character (Queen Akasha). Serpentine and bloodthirsty, she was spellbinding whether she posed as a petrified statue or a stalking predator. Her character moved skillfully to the movie’s headbanging soundtrack, killing targets with easy flicks of the wrist. Though her vampire-queen character perished in the end, both Akasha and Aaliyah are eternal in fans’ memories. I still mourn her, and the fantasy-film titan she could have been.