It a premise that you have heard before: a young pop princess who is constantly asked to succumb to the hypersexual and fame-whoring demands of the music industry drowns in the pressure that threatens to destroy her while a male hero figure having a profession befitting a hero pulls her from the brink. They lock eyes and continue on a journey of falling in love, with her learning to love herself and him letting her do it while he protects her from impeding harm (name that movie). All the while, the narrative stands as a cautionary tale of the darkside of the entertainment biz to prevent any impressionable youth from mistaken it for the glamorous life. It’s not the stuff of innovation but despite all of this, Gina Prince Bythewood’s Beyond the Lights has some magic to it.
I attribute a lot of that to the wonder that is Gugu Mbatha-Raw. It’s all in her sly peeks through her outrageous purple hair and deliberate glances over her shoulder with a slow smile. It is all the things Mbatha-Raw uses to convincingly inhabit the character of pop star Noni, and it is all tricks Noni learns to tease her adoring fans. But cultivating this adoration is not enough to sustain Noni, who secretly dreams of stripping down the over production from her carefully crafted music career for softer melodies, acoustic sounds, and her own words in song.
She knows that no one in her life will understand this. Not her lewd rapper boyfriend (Colson “Machine Gun Kelly” Baker), who uses her more than she uses him. And especially not her controlling stage mother (Minni Driver), who would never allow her to detract from the career she spent her lifetime cultivating. This is evident in the opening of the film, when young Noni (India Jean-Jacques) just falls short of winning first place in a talent competition with her sweet rendition of Nina Simon’s “Blackbird” and her mother, horrified, smashes her trophy in the parking lot, screaming “do you want to be a runner-up, or do you want to be a winner?”
So like the blackbird that is the subject of the song that has become the symbol of her life, she knows that she will never fly. So she drinks too much one night, steps out onto the balcony of her hotel room, looks down, and flirts with the idea of jumping. That is when Kaz (Nate Parker), a second-generation cop with political aspirations, steps in and saves her, unknowingly catapulting both of them on a journey of self-discovery and love.
Beyond the Lights benefits greatly by the earnestness of its characters not only as single entities but also in various times in the film when they are paired off. Of course the chemistry between Noni and Kaz (Nate Parker) can’t be denied; it is palpable without being overwhelming, sensual without being sleezy, and tender without being trite. The scenes of their escape from the bright lights and prying eyes of the paps to the soothing, calm beach waters is a beautiful moment that emphasizes their blooming connection. Moments between Kaz and his father (Danny Glover) are warm, comforting, and full of wisdom, all of what you would want father-son moments to carry with them. The exchanges between Noni and her mother, powerful and painful, aptly portraying the mother’s actions as unforgivable but at the same time loving (one of Minni Driver’s best performances to date).
Where the film doesn’t quite work is in setting equal stakes for both of its main characters. The film gives a lot Mbatha-Raw a greater burden to handle as the objectified woman in the spotlight with constant demands thrust upon her while Parker get only potentially dashed political dreams at the audience never completely buys into. Furthermore, it often falls into the trappings of the predictable romance film formulas when its story of female enpowerment is the far more interesting story.
The Good: The commentary on the intense scrutiny and pressures put on woman, the rebirth of the 90s black romantic drama, oh, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw can sing, ya’ll
The Bad: It is not as ambitious as it could have been
The Ugly: Some moments of melodrama will have you rolling your eyes