Beyond the Lights (Gina Prince-Bythewood, 2014)
About halfway through Beyond the Lights – the new soapy tearjerker of a pop-infused romance by Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball, The Secret Life of Bees) – Nate Parker (Red Tails) takes his shirt off to dress the self-inflicted wounds of Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle). As the camera lingers on his perfect chest, biceps and abs (which it will do with increasing frequency throughout the film), what should be a moving moment of crisis turns, instead, into a risible and crass display of a sexy body. The audience in the theater laughed, as they did with each subsequent nude shot. And that’s the essence of the problem with the movie. Though Prince-Bythewood, a talented writer/director, has made the film with the best of intentions – tackling universal themes of love, despair, identity and self-determination – the net result rarely rises above the general (and generic) clichés of mainstream Hollywood filmmaking. With more than a few shades of 1992’s The Bodyguard (and most other pop star-centered stories) in its DNA, Beyond the Lights – though entertaining in spots, and featuring a riveting performance from its female lead – does not, in fact, go beyond much at all.
Mbatha-Raw plays Noni, the mixed-race daughter of Minnie Driver (Good Will Hunting) – in a thankless one-note role as a domineering stage mother – and an unknown father, whom we first meet as a child (nicely incarnated by newcomer India Jean-Jacques) as she is about to perform in a talent contest, singing Nina Simone’s “Blackbird.” When she comes in second, her mother forces her to throw away the trophy, telling her, “You wanna be a runner-up or you wanna be a winner?” With a sudden smash cut to the present, we see what Noni has become: a rising R&B star who, through a series of sex-fueled music videos with a white rapper, is poised on the brink of superstardom (with her first solo album on the way). But then, one night, inebriated, she tries to throw herself off a balcony, and we discover that the journey from child to adult, and from authentic performance to the artificiality of the music business, has taken a serious toll on Noni.
Fortunately, Kaz (Parker), a twenty-something police officer moonlighting on Noni’s security detail, is there to catch Noni as she falls (physically and emotionally). The rest of the movie centers on the way their relationship could either derail both of their career prospects (he is an aspiring politician), or show them each a new way forward, towards the selves they were meant to be. It’s a sweet story, but often rendered so clumsily, and with music – even the final ballad that Noni composes as an example of true self-expression – so insistently banal that is often hard to appreciate the moving message beneath the noise. The sole exception to this is the scene in the film when Noni, in Mexico with Kaz, sings, once more, Simone’s “Blackbird,” and we feel – for one brief shining moment – something real happening on screen (Mbatha-Raw is great throughout, but not well served by the material).
In spite of it all, the film is eminently watchable, with appealing actors. It’s just not very good.