The showbiz melodrama isn’t an easy beast to wrangle, succumbing too easily to overwrought, facile statements about both human emotion and the entertainment industry. So even if Beyond The Lights did nothing greater than stick the landing of its preposterous-on-the-surface premise, it could be deemed a success. But writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood (who mined similar territory in 2000’s enduring Love & Basketball) ups the level of difficulty, adding pronounced feminist and racial undertones to a story about two very pretty people falling into a very pretty relationship.
The pretty people in question are troubled up-and-coming singer Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, whose face is the reason the word “luminous” was coined), and Kaz (Nate Parker), the cop who saves her from an attempted suicide with some quick action and smooth talk. Though Kaz is initially put off by Noni and her management’s attempts to wave off her near-plummet from a hotel balcony as a drunken indiscretion—suicidal singers don’t sell records, and Noni’s debut is about to drop—they’re soon enamored of each other. But of course there are obstacles. Even though Noni won a Billboard award before even releasing a proper album, her career currently consists of little more than dressing in revealing outfits and moaning the choruses of raunchy songs by her label-mandated mentor/lover Kid Culprit (played by real-life rapper Machine Gun Kelly). Combined with the tabloid attention garnered by the suicide attempt, this doesn’t mesh well with Kaz’s political aspirations, which seem to be driven primarily by his perpetually striving father, a domineering police captain played by Danny Glover. And yet…
Beyond The Lights’ star-crossed love story is a tale as old as Romeo And Juliet, and its specific milieu is at least as old as The Bodyguard. But Prince-Bythewood’s script has a distinctly modern angle that smartly incorporates the current entertainment-industry climate, as well as the intersection of social media, tabloids, and celebrity, which is rarely portrayed with the accuracy and insight it’s given here. It helps that Prince-Bythewood has tremendous assets in the form of Parker and especially Mbatha-Raw, who beautifully translates, often through looks alone, the internal wounds wrought by the compromises and humiliations of being a micromanaged pop starlet. Many of those humiliations come at the hands of Noni’s mother and manager, played by an uncharacteristically brittle, characteristically great Minnie Driver, who finds nuance and real pain in what could have been a two-dimensionally hateful character. No question, Noni’s mom is still plenty hateful, especially when turning a blind eye to her daughter’s clear discomfort at being told to remove her top during a photo shoot. But her horrible actions are at least rooted in tangible, believable issues. To the film’s credit, it addresses those issues without attempting to resolve them, avoiding a too-tidy ending while still providing the catharsis the story demands.
Beyond The Lights is sometimes swooningly romantic, particularly during a lovingly photographed jaunt to Mexico that at times recalls a commercial for an all-inclusive vacation resort. But within the heightened premise lies some exceptionally grounded character work that invites audiences to root for these crazy kids, not just as a couple, but as individuals. Noni’s trajectory is informed by the public ups and downs of several pop starlets—Rihanna and Britney Spears are two of the more obvious examples—but she isn’t simply a symbol or stand-in for a bigger statement about the compromises involved in being a young, black woman in an industry prone to intense objectification. In Mbatha-Raw’s hands, she’s a real, damaged human being navigating extraordinary circumstances over which she has little control. Within that context, actions as seemingly trivial as removing her purple hair extensions and clipping off her acrylic nails take on extraordinary power, and say much about how easy it is to get lost within a lifestyle that amounts to a never-ending public performance. Kaz’s problems are slightly less interesting than Noni’s, partly by virtue of their secondary function within the story, and partly because Mbatha-Raw’s performance so definitively steals the show. But his story still flirts with interesting ideas about the expectations placed on young, intelligent black men in the post-Obama age.
Melodrama is defined by exaggerated characters and events, as well as overt appeals to emotion, and Beyond The Lights fits that mold ably and comfortably. But beneath the shiny surface of music-video imagery and true-loveisms lie some provocative ideas and deep truths about how people relate on a private level vs. a public one. It might be easy to wave off this film as little more than cinematic candy, but if all candy were this nutritious and filling, the much-maligned genre of the big-screen romance might be in a healthier state.