‘Beyond the Lights’: Requiem for a Diva

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When was the last time that you saw a decent contemporary urban romantic drama, which revolved around a female pop star? It has probably been quite a while. If you are hankering for a film that fits the bill, you might want to check out “Beyond the Lights.”

Ten-year old Noni (India Jean-Jacques) sings the Nina Simone classic, “Blackbird,” at a talent show. When Noni comes in second, her overbearing mother, Macy Jean (Minnie Driver), berates the shy little girl. She bellows, “Do you want to be a runner-up or do you want to be a winner?,” then insists that Noni discard the second place trophy. It is an early portent of the way Noni’s hard-nosed mom prioritizes success over her daughter’s happiness.

Fast forward and Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is now an adult. Her mother turned manager/publicist, has arranged for Noni to be a featured artist on three hit singles by white rapper, Kid Culprit (real-life rapper, Machine Gun Kelly). Then, mommy dearest in conjunction with the record label cynically collaborate on engineering a highly publicized relationship between Noni and Kid Culprit. Along the way, there are a series of photo shoots, in which Noni dons skimpy, provocative outfits and hair extensions. As a result of this savvy marketing, Noni has just won a Billboard Music Award even though she hasn’t released her own solo album yet.

A screen capture from the trailer to the film "Beyond the Lights" at  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5-NsI8lZ5Lw

A screen capture from the trailer to the film “Beyond the Lights” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5-NsI8lZ5Lw

You might expect Noni to be in a celebratory mood. In reality, she is overwhelmed by the pressures of being treated as a commodity, not a full-fledged person, and constantly being shoved into the celebrity spotlight. Seeking respite from this unwelcome modus vivendi, she jumps off the balcony of her deluxe hotel room.

Filling in his L.A.P.D. partner, Kaz Nicole (Nate Parker), is moonlighting on a security detail on Noni’s hotel suite. As Noni begins her leap, he springs into action, flying across the room. Kaz grabs Noni as she tumbles over the railing, then pulls her back to safety.

Onlookers see Noni, dangling from the hotel balcony. To squelch rumors that her daughter has attempted suicide, Macy Jean hastily schedules a press conference for the following morning. According to the cover story that Macy Jean has concocted, Noni was just a little tipsy and simply lost her balance. At the press conference, Noni publicly thanks Kaz for having heroically saved her. There is an obvious connection between the two strikingly attractive lead characters.

Although the film downplays the parallelism, Kaz’s career is also being carefully planned by a parent, who is obsessed with their child achieving conventional success. In Kaz’s case, his father, widowed L.A.P.D. Captain David Nicol (Danny Glover), has mapped out a career in politics for Kaz. As Kaz’s dad points out, getting involved with a somewhat tainted celebrity would be anathema to his son’s pending campaign.

Can an actress with the decidedly foreign-sounding name of Gugu Mbatha-Raw overcome the xenophobic prejudices of Americans and become a major movie star here?  Before you rule it out, consider whether you had thought that it was possible for someone saddled with the Afro-Islamic birth name of Barack Hussein Obama could ever be elected President of the United States. Better yet, check out Mbatha-Raw’s performance in “Beyond the Lights.”

The biracial English native auditioned for the lead role in “Beyond the Lights,” using an American accent to fit the character as it appeared on the page. However, when screenwriter/director, Gina Prince-Bythewood, heard Mbatha-Raw’s natural speaking voice, she was prompted to rewrite the character as British born.

Sony Pictures, which had optioned the film, balked at the idea of having the little known Mbatha-Raw in the lead role of a mainstream film. However, when Prince-Bythewood remained adamant about not replacing Mbatha-Raw, Sony dropped the project. Encouraged by her husband, Prince-Bythewood shot a five-minute reel, which featured Mbatha-Raw. Executives at Relativity Media liked what they saw. They agreed to finance and distribute the low-budget film.

Mbatha-Raw’s nuanced performance in “Beyond the Lights” justified Prince-Bythewood’s faith in her. She convincingly portrays both the tarted up sex symbol version of her character and the more sensitive artist beneath the carefully constructed facade. Earlier this year, Mbatha-Raw convincingly portrayed the refined, upper class character in “Belle,” a 19th century historical drama. Mbatha-Raw has now given evidence of her impressive versatility as an actor.

A screen capture from the trailer to the film "Beyond the Lights" at  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5-NsI8lZ5Lw

A screen capture from the trailer to the film “Beyond the Lights” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5-NsI8lZ5Lw

Nate Parker displays a nice chemistry with his onscreen love interest. He embodies an appealing amalgam of gallantry and a subdued, albeit unmistakable, virility. Parker’s well-chiseled physique is showcased to advantage in several scenes.

This film recalls Prince-Bythewood’s auspicious debut as the screenwriter/director of “Love & Basketball” back in 2000. Once again, she allows for the possibility that love can prevail against adversity, without descending into the realm of rank sentimentality. Prince-Bythewood infuses her films with an undeniable earnestness. One wishes that more of her projects could make it to the big screen.

In the interim, “Beyond the Lights” offers an entertaining and often perceptive take on the vicissitudes of modern romance.

“Beyond the Lights”  *** PG-13 (for sexual content including suggestive gestures, partial nudity, language and thematic element) 116 minutes

Film critic Nathan Lerner sees more than 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.


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