Beyond the Lights Review
Beyond the Lights is the story of Noni, a hot new award-winning artist who is primed for super-stardom. But not all is what it seems, and the pressures cause Noni to nearly fall apart - until she meets Kaz Nicol, a promising young cop and aspiring politician who’s been assigned to her detail. Drawn to each other, Noni and Kaz fall fast and hard, despite the protests of those around them to put their career ambitions ahead of their romance.
A good-natured companion piece to The Bodyguard, Beyond the Lights is told in broadly predictable and sentimental strokes, neither of which are criticisms. A well-told fantasy can only embrace that predictability otherwise risk sounding false. And barely a single-note of this romance doesn't ring true. Playing out as an almost naive, reflective take on Romeo and Juliet, it features two youngsters beholden to their families. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood's screenplay is deftly written, bereft of cliché, with emotional dialogue that betrays intelligence.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw is wonderful as Noni; a layered and honest performance all the more remarkable for not being by a professional singer. They searched for a vocalist who could act, but instead focused on performance. You wouldn't know the difference. Listen for "Grateful", the Academy Award nominated song by Diane Warren. And Nina Simone's Blackbird, a key-stone of the narrative, is a goosebump moment rounding out the character.
Finding Gugu also meant Noni could be British. Ironically isolating her, it nevertheless opens up the film and the London scenes are excellent. So often a foreign location dips into stereotype, but Prince-Bythewood avoids this by focusing on the characters, regardless of where they are. Never showy, never in awe; measured pacing and bright compositions complement a restrained tone.
Minnie Driver’s fiercely determined and complex role would have lost some relevance had it been an all-American family. Well, lost to British viewers! Almost the villain of the tale, Driver is pushing Noni into a world she doesn’t want. Her performance as a single-mother seeing a way to give her daughter a better life commands sympathy.
With such believable characters it’s hard to be cynical; yet take a side-long glance and you might find a problem with the story. Noni is already famous with her debut album due for release. She feels trapped, but what about the thousands of other talented unknown artists determined not to sell their souls? But that’s the well-handled point which comes to bear on Driver. This is a world where only image is important at the cost of personality and integrity. Noni's mother is responsible for losing sight of what's important.
Kaz (Nate Parker) can persuade Noni to believe in herself again. But can a relationship with a raunchy pop-princess work while he is being groomed for a political life? Chipping away at Noni's false exterior culminates in a sublime moment where the real her is revealed. Meanwhile, Noni shows Kaz a world he could only dream of. They find something they need in one another; a chance to determine their own fates.
Nate is a convincingly solid presence and the chemistry between him and Gugu is the stuff you just can't write (as proven by Fifty Shades of Grey). You're willing them to succeed as he gently pushes back on his ambitious father, Danny Glover's police captain. Glover is softer than the ruthless Minnie Driver, but he is still a weight pulling on Kaz. It's cheap to link Glover with Lethal Weapon again -he's better than that- but it’s fun to hear Kaz telling him he loved the stories in his youth that made his dad seem like a superman. He must have seen the films too!
The only duff note in the cast is real-life rapper Colson “MGK” Baker, the record label's public partner for Noni. Despite being essential, he’s the only point where both writing and performance fall short. You're supposed to think he's a misogynistic idiot, but he’s handled bluntly. A heavily sexualised stage performance late in the film is particularly awkward. One of... no, actually, the only point at which the spell was broken. It results with Kaz running onto the stage, which felt like an impossible moment. The film has its fair share of sentimentality, but only here does it jar, giving into the fantasy of the thing. Still, Baker is the only one without a good intention and so he’s an easy villain.
There's an unassuming quality to Beyond the Lights. Even if credibility is occasionally stretched, it is to a single purpose. Be it Gina Prince-Bythewood's wily direction or just serendipity, the relationship between the characters feels substantial and real. Nate and Gugu work so well together there's a sense that they might exist beyond the film, a test of any such performance.
It is likely you haven’t heard of this film. It simply didn't have a UK release despite the strong British angle to the story. The lack of confidence in even a limited release appears to be because several cast members are black. An awful reason nonetheless one confirmed by a bemused Gina Prince-Bythewood who has faced resistance to the film from the beginning because of casting. It's not the only film affected (comedies do better than drama; make of that what you will) and it's depressing to think that such ignorance plays a part in distribution.
Beyond The Lights is available on DVD and streaming services. Take a moment to track it down. Anchored by Gugu Mbatha-Raw's generous lead performance, it is an optimistic and beautifully played film, deserving of more attention.