Directed by: Gina Prince-Bythewood.
Written by: Gina Prince-Bythewood.
Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Noni), Nate Parker (Kaz), Minnie Driver (Macy Jean), Richard Colson Baker (Kid Culprit), Danny Glover (Captain Nicol), Darryl Stephens (Quentin), Elaine Tan (April), Isaac Keys (Jonas), Tyler Christopher (Liam King), Benito Martinez (Jesse Soria), Aisha Hinds (J Stanley), India Jean-Jacques (Noni - age 10).
There is hardly a music business, melodrama cliché that Gina Prince-Blythewood’s Beyond the Lights does not use during its runtime. It is a film about a self-destructive famous singer named Noni (the stunningly beautiful Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who meets and falls in love with a normal guy – a cop named Kaz (Nate Parker), who saves her life by thwarting her suicide attempt – and as a result gets back to who she really is. You could have made this basic movie way back in the 1920s as a silent film. Yet, sometimes clichés are clichés because the work – especially when they are exploited by a writer-director as talented as Prince-Blythewood, and performed by two actors as appealing as Mbatha-Raw and Parker. Yes, the movie indulges in clichés – I haven’t even mentioned Minnie Driver’s domineering mother yet – but it uses those clichés to make one hell of an entertaining movie – that goes deeper than the initial premise would suggest.
The film opens – after a brief scene of our star as a child - with a music video – Kid Culprit featuring Noni on Masterpiece. The song itself is catchy as hell, the video dripping with sexuality, as Noni writhes around in clothes that are barely there, and has sex with the camera – and Kid Culprit – with her eyes. I have no trouble believing that this could be a legitimate hit song, and video. The video instantly establishes the world the movie is taking place in – and just exactly who Noni is (basically a performer not unlike Rihanna). We learn shortly after that her debut album hasn’t even dropped yet, and she’s already a star because of her collaborations with Kid Culprit – and an award winner. But after that award show, Noni retreats into her hotel room alone. She’s been drinking – and she’s not a drinker – and steps out onto the balcony, with the intention of throwing herself off. That is when Kaz, who has been hired to keep people out of the hotel room – walks in, sees what Noni is doing, and heroically saves Noni’s life. He doesn’t have much respect for Noni – and even less when he is basically forced to lie, and say the whole thing was an accident. But he’s drawn to her anyway – and her to him. And slowly we get to know both of these people, and the pressures they are facing. She loves to sing, but has had her career managed by her mother for maximum exposure – exploiting her sexuality to become more famous, participating in photo-shoots where she is uncomfortable with how much she has to show, singing ridiculously, overtly sexual songs that she knows is bad. But she is a product now – she’s making money, and a lot of people are counting on her – especially her domineering mother, who pushes things farther and father. Kaz has his own issues – he is also being push by a parent, his father (Danny Glover), who thinks Kaz may be the next Barack Obama. His life has been mapped out for him – and he’s about to run for office for the first time. Neither parent likes the burgeoning relationship between the two – Driver because it’s a distraction, and feeds the suicide story, Glove because he knows that Noni is not “first lady” material. But the pair fall in love anyway.
The reason the movie works as well as it does is because of the performances. Parker is fine as Kaz – big, strong, and confident – but still somewhat confused by what he wants in life. It’s another good performance on Parker’s growing resume. But the star is Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who is utterly brilliant as Noni – who starts off looking like another shallow pop star, and slowly starts revealing the pain underneath – and the little girl who still dreams of being a singer – not the one she is, but the one she wanted to be as a child, when she sang Nina Simone’s Blackbird in a singing competition. The opening scene, with a little girl playing Noni, is wonderful. When, later in the film after a transformation, when Noni sings the song again, it’s a showstopper – as great a musical moment as you can find in a movie this year. Mbatha-Raw, who was the star in the rather bland Belle earlier this year (she was far better than the movie though), delivers what should be a star making performance here. It is a great performance.
The movie takes some shortcuts, and has some issues – placing all the blame for Noni’s career on her domineering mother, who for most of the movie is a caricature (it gives her some shadings late in the movie, but it’s not quite enough). And because Mbatha-Raw is such a force in the movie, and takes over, everything involving Kaz’s life without her grinds the movie to the halt when it pops up.
But overall, Beyond the Lights is a wonderful showbiz melodrama – one that uses its genre to make a terrifically entertaining movie. Prince-Blythewood, who directed the similarly wonderful Love & Basketball all the way back in 2000, has constructed another solid love story. Yes, it’s clichés. But it’s so good it transcends those clichés.