Beyond the Lights (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★
With three number one singles and fresh off her win from the Billboard Award’s Top Song—even before her first album was released—Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) goes back to her hotel room and decides to jump off the balcony. Kaz (Nate Parker), the police officer in charge of guarding her room, manages to talk her out committing suicide, but a slip on the railing and a few paparazzi are all it takes to sensationalize a story. Noni, who dreamed of becoming a singer since she was young, is just another pop star whose life, according to the press, is spiraling out of control. Not surprisingly, the truth is almost always more complicated than a few pictures.
Written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, “Beyond the Lights” surprised me with its willingness to dive into various depths when it comes to how it may be like for a person whose profession involves receiving constant scrutiny while being under the spotlight. Based off the trailer, I came to expect a silly love story where a man rescues a woman from her unhappiness. On the contrary, the picture is about self-empowerment, learning to find the strength from within oneself to step out of another person’s shadow—in this case, parental expectations from Kaz’ father and Noni’s mother—and lead a life that is healthy, maybe imperfect, but one that feels right for herself.
The scenes between Noni and her mother, Macy (Minnie Driver), are dramatic but moving nonetheless. Not once is the screenplay shy about criticizing parents who treat their children like a product to be sold instead of a loved one to be protected. Driver embodies a manic intensity in portraying a scary parent that one would not want to disappoint or cross. With the film having a running time of two hours, which is a bit overlong in parts, I liked that the material provides a bit of her backstory, why she treats her own flesh and blood like a piece of five-cent meat.
Although less powerful, the scenes between Mbatha-Raw and Parker have a freshness to them, too. The two performers share chemistry physically but they do not rely on looking pretty or handsome to get us through their relationship. There is fluctuation in what they think and know about one another and so as they get to know each other, in turn, we feel like we are getting to know them.
Mbatha-Raw has the makings of an excellent, respectable, classy performer. To me, she delivered two performances: one with a purple weave on and one with her natural hair. Every time she is in front of a microphone and sings, it is magic. Not once does she forget that she is an actress playing a singer—not the other way around. Notice that when she sings, her facial expressions are more pronounced; though words are coming out of her mouth in a form of a song, her expressions command power because they highlight the emotions behind the words.
“Beyond the Lights” is an entertaining drama that makes some fresh choices. It is elevated by good performances, especially by Mbatha-Raw, and solid writing, at its best when not pushing too hard to be romantic. While watching the film, I thought about the female pop and R&B artists of today. I wondered if any of them could shine much brighter if image did not count as much and if the glitz and glamour were scrubbed off completely.