BEYOND THE LIGHTS Review: Story Light, Star Bright
I’ve always had a soft spot for movies where music or musicians are central to the story (favorites include 1982’s Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains; 1984’s This is Spinal Tap; this year’s terrific We Are the Best!; and my top pick, 1996’s That Thing You Do!). Regardless of the genre of film or music within it, if people are singing, I’m watching.
People are certainly singing in Beyond the Lights, a film that opens in the late 1990s to find Noni (India Jean-Jacques), a 10-year-old child with the voice of Nina Simone, entering a low-rent talent competition. When she finishes as first runner-up, her mother (Minnie Driver) rushes her out of the hall before the emcee can thank everyone for coming. Second place simply won’t do. Fast-forward to present day, and Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is still being handled by her “Momager,” but now she’s an on-the-verge-of-superstardom R&B singer (not quite Beyoncé … more like Rihanna).
But the pressure of it all – the fame, the lifestyle, the drive to succeed, the image she needs to maintain – takes its toll on Noni, and she contemplates suicide as she sits on the wrong side of the railing of her high hotel balcony. Enter Kaz (Nate Parker), an LA cop with political aspirations who is in the right place at the right time. He saves Noni from herself, and in the process begins a slow-burning romance with the singer that takes their lives in directions they never expected.
With Beyond the Lights, writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood creates something of a fairytale. In her story there is the Princess, Noni, who is trapped in the castle of her own fame, constantly thwarted by the paparazzi and social media, her misogynistic rapper boyfriend (real-life rapper Machine Gun Kelly, credited here as Richard Colson Baker), and her controlling mother (more like a wicked step-manager). The Princess, facing certain death, is rescued by Kaz, her knight in shining body armor.
With Kaz, Prince-Bythewood continues the fairytale. Kaz is handsome and noble and righteous and strong, battling evil as both professional and moral obligations. He also hopes to one day rule the kingdom in the form of holding elected office. He, too, has parental complications as his father (Danny Glover), who has worked hard to groom his son for this future, wants him to stay out of the glaring (and sometimes embarrassing) spotlight that Noni’s hip-hop world would expose him to, thus jeopardizing his good standing with local religious leaders, which in turn would jeopardize fundraising and vote-getting efforts.
That’s right, not only is there a tragic damsel in distress and a stalwart but hamstrung hero, there is also the conflict of opposite sides of the tracks.
And yet it all just sits there on the screen, as two-dimensional as a page from a book of fables, despite the efforts of its talented and charismatic cast. This is one great flaw of the film. Prince-Bythewood focuses so much on coloring within the lines of what each character should be (tragic damsel, hero, villain), she routinely forgets or ignores all of that great space around the lines – the space that defines the lines.
It’s unfortunate. There is great opportunity here to explore character and motivation – the greatest missed opportunity being Noni’s decision to commit suicide. Prince-Bythewood deftly moves the character from childhood aspirations to near-global success with organic efficiency, then leaves it as nothing more than a plot-point, asking the audience to simply accept “they won’t let me be me” as the motivation for the attempt. Other assumptions are demanded by the filmmaker as well, including the Momager being THAT Momager so often depicted on reality TV, the rapper being THAT rapper, and so on.
The other great flaw is that real conflict only ever comes into play when Prince-Bythewood thinks it’s about time it should. The media routinely disappears when the couple needs some alone time, only to return to make a specific moment awkward. Momager is demanding – when she’s around; Kaz’s job as a police officer never seems to be in jeopardy despite his chronic absenteeism as a result of living Noni’s jet-set lifestyle; and the cop’s political aspirations are only ever passively handled, with mentions serving more as reminders that there is this thing out there, as opposed to actually developing the thing that’s out there.
For wanting to present a pair of star-crossed lovers, Prince-Bythewood certainly doesn’t put much of substance in the couple’s way. It becomes apparent fairly early in the film that the things that go on around the couple – the things that are supposed to form the lines Prince-Bythewood colors within – are underdeveloped to the point of feeling like they are inserted to meet a minimum requirement.
Despite this, the film’s stars absolutely dazzle. Parker is handsome and chiseled and everything you want in a leading man (though dramatically unchallenged), and Driver is just great in her small but pivotal (all things considered) role as the bad mom/great manager. But it’s Mbatha-Raw who makes the film. Her onscreen wattage cannot be quantified – it’s as if there isn’t enough camera to love her. She even does her own singing on the film’s soundtrack (and does a pretty good job of it).
Beyond the Lights wants to be this generation’s The Bodyguard – that music-heavy romance between two unlikely people that may or may not be destined for greater love. It even has the potential to be better than that. With issues ranging from suicide to self-image, and from misogyny in rap to mixed-race relationships, and from paparazzi to politics, the film is positioned to go to greater depths in any of these areas in an effort to tell a better story. Instead, it prefers to wallow in shallow gloss of the imagery its own subject falls victim to.