Gugu Mbatha-Raw gives an award winning performance in Gina Prince-Bythewood's stylized and entertaining music-biz romance.
Writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood (“Love and Basketball”) crafted a well structured screenplay giving her lead Gugu Mbatha-Raw all the ammunition she required to deliver a fierce performance as an explosive, burgeoning pop star. Opposite her is the very fine actor Nate Parker who plays an earnest cop who saves her from suicide.
On the surface “Beyond the Lights” is about the underbelly of the contemporary music-industry but it's hiding a gritty love story that shows the insanity of being in love which is magnified when the dizzying heights of stardom and wealth are added.
The legend begins in the late 1990s, as a shy British school girl, Noni (India Jean-Jacques) belts out a cappella rendition of Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” at a talent competition clearly blowing away the competition. Nonetheless, subtle racism rears it's ugly head and she's given the clearly, under deserving second place trophy which is quickly smashed by her sassy, financially challenged mom (Minnie Driver), who plants the seeds of raw ambition into her gifted daughters head, “Do you wanna be a runner-up, or do you want to be a winner?”
The story then reves into present day, and the sexy and adult Noni (Mbatha-Raw) has fashioned herself into an international music sensation with all of the gear expected of such a Beyonce-meets-Rihanna hybrid.
Her body is her calling card and it's shone off with outfits that would make strippers blush.
Noni is in the verge of stardom being part of several hits along side her controversial,rapper boyfriend, Kid Culprit (Colson “Machine Gun Kelly” Baker). The hype machine is in full throttle despite the fact that her debut album has yet to drop, The world watches as she slinks (seen but not heard) through a hotel to her penthouse suite after an awards show.
She has it all but once out of sight, Noni heads straight to the hotel balcony and hoists herself onto the railing. Enter Kaz (Nate Parker), the emphatic young LAPD officer assigned to guard her room. He saves her and the two lock eyes only for a moment, torn apart by the armies of handlers assigned to damage control. To wit, Kaz is cleverly bribed into towing the official line at a subsequent press conference, insisting that Noni "simply slipped."
Perhaps these sequences feel a tad melodramatic but it sets up the more interesting layers of the love story and it's a credit to the strong writing.
Kaz, is being groomed to make a run for local political office by his father (Danny Glover). Yet, he can't stop thinking about Noni and works out excuses to work his way back into her dizzying orbit.
Noni, under strict PR guidance buries her depression and brush with death as strongly advised by her mother, now serving as her "take no prisoners" business manager. Needless to say, she doesn't appreciate officer Kaz.
Nothing speeds up romance faster than parental disapproval and in an adolescent flurry, the two ditch her battalion of escorts, opting for a stolen, first date, at a drive-through fried chicken spot.
Kaz and Noni are destined to be together despite the obstacles which include a paparazzi-stalked witch hunt.
“Beyond the Lights” works and it's shot beautifully. It's easy to forgive,and forget, some of the heavy handed posturing.
To it's credit, the pic tackles a number of tough issues with rather admirable directness: the entertainment industry’s willingness to disregard mental health, the blatant hyper-sexualization of female musicians and the unending pursuit of money.
The tender moments make this film worth the ticket price. Women, the world over, will understand the feelings behind Noni, removing her hair extensions and scrubbing off her makeup aka the layers of her mask. The result is empowering even more so,than the stunningly staged seduction, of a blindfolded Kaz, on a private jet while Beyonce’s “Drunk in Love” plays. It's steamy but not gratuitous.
To the lead, Mbatha-Raw is superb. Driver matches her thus delivering a believable mother-daughter dynamic. Parker is sturdy.
The behind-the-scene team were well chosen including R&B hitmaker Terius “The-Dream” Nash who composes a handful of porno-chic pop songs for Mbatha-Raw to sing.
Opening November 14 this Relativity film release.