Beyond the Lights (2014) / Drama-Romance

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for sexual content including suggestive gestures, partial nudity, language and thematic elements
Running Time: 116 min.

Cast: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nate Parker, Minnie Driver, Danny Glover, Richard Colson Baker (MGK)
Ssmall roles and cameos: Estelle, Chaka Khan, Amar'e Stoudemire, Don Lemon, Gayle King
Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Screenplay: Gina Prince-Bythewood

Review published November 16, 2014

Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle, Odd Thomas) turns in a solid performance as Rihanna-like Brixton-born burgeoning pop superstar Noni, whose mother, Macy Jean (Driver, I Give It a Year), has primed her for the spotlight ever since she was a little girl competing in local talent shows. After three successful stints making a name for herself on her mega-star beau Kid Culprit's (MGK) rap record, she's set for her own solo project, and after receiving her first major industry award, she has a little too much to drink and ends up nearly committing suicide, only to be saved at the last second by her LAPD bodyguard, Kaz (Parker, Non-Stop).

Kaz has superstar dreams of his own in the world of politics, and though he thinks Noni needs medical help, he gains some notoriety of his own for not only saving her life, but also for potentially being her new boyfriend when she takes a liking to him for being the only genuine person in her life.  But with mounting pressures from a billion dollar music industry expecting her to fulfill her contract, she gets caught in an inward struggle as to whether fame and fortune is worth extinguishing the real Noni.

Imagine The Bodyguard if set in the modern day, where vocal talent isn't as important as rampant titillation in order to catapult a young singer to superstardom, and you'll have Beyond the Lights, a glitzy, but in the end respectable, attempt to bring a show business romance story to a new generation. Written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (The Secret Life of Bees, Love & Basketball), it starts out as a fairly straightforward 'neon lights of Hollywood dreams' romance, ultimately making way in the second half as a struggle to maintain artistic integrity and self-worth in an industry where the road to success is paved by many others.

Unfortunately, while the search for an inner voice merits a modicum of respect, the film's romance lacks as much sizzle as the music industry components, and often feels shoehorned in at awkward moments.  Mbatha-Raw, who does her own singing and dancing, even helping with some song lyrics, and is one hell of an actress besides, is always worth watching.  Nate Parker gives his character solidity, but he feels a mismatch in stature to Mbatha-Raw's captivating presence -- he's a placeholder hunk, wearing a police uniform two sizes too small, whose abs are more attractive than his charisma, sweet but drab, who Noni clings to because he represents integrity in a world full of users and yes men.   Minnie Driver is fierce as Noni's overbearing stage mother, and gets her first real moments to shine as an actress on the big screen in some time.

There's some choice (if obvious) metaphor through the use of the song, "Blackbird", by Nina Simone, which Noni sings a capella on a couple of occasions, each to profound effect.  Like a bird in a cage, Noni wants to fly with freedom, but is forced to live a life in containment, there to exist for the pleasure of others content to keep her for their sheer admiration.  But, what she wants more than anything, is to be seen for the bird she is, and not for the one the others want her to be seen as, so when Kaz utters those three little words, "I see you," they provide all of the meaning in the world to a little girl who never got to fully grow into her own before mother and other handlers used her as a canvas to paint their own dreams on. 

Proverbial Boy Scout since birth, Kaz's story mirrors Noni's, whose dad (Glover, Blindness) has set him on a career path in politics, and while he does desire to make a difference, his life feels confined, especially as Noni isn't "First Lady material."  Both are in industries where image is everything, and the image makers don't include them, and both have to decide whether being successful is worth their own happiness to achieve.

That's some poignant stuff for a film that markets itself as a glossy romance stuffed in a pop music shell, so if I'm taken aback by its underlying intelligence, it's because I now "see" the film for what it is beyond its marketed value. While I am lukewarm on the film's first half, I admire the second half, knowing that we still need that superficial opening hour to understand the difference in result.  It is still uneven, but the highs are so much higher, as we literally witness a transformation before our eyes from elusive object of admiration to the subject of her own story to tell.  It is for these scenes, a couple of them that actually ring some emotional bells, and Mbatha-Raw's own star-in-the-making performance, that I'm giving Beyond the Lights a recommendation. 

 Qwipster's rating::

2014 Vince Leo