Beyond the Lights is the story of Noni, a hot new award-winning artist who is primed for superstardom. 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.
Yet another behemoth series of The X-Factor is about to lumber into view and perhaps it’s a lofty expectation for a small film, but it would be nice to imagine that this effortlessly watchable movie could help dispel some of the myths surrounding supposedly easy fame. Beyond the Lights follows Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a genuinely talented singer who is on the brink of super-stardom. Her aggressive mother-cum-manager (formidable Minnie Driver) is pushing Noni into a world she doesn’t really want. In desperation, the exhausted girl finds herself dangling from a balcony, eager to end her very public life, but police officer Kaz (Nate Parker) saves her and they both find something they need in one another and a chance to determine their own fates. Level-headed Kaz is struggling with a parent’s expectations too; his father (Danny Glover) imagines a life of politics for him.
A good-natured companion piece to The Bodyguard, Beyond the Lights is a low-key drama told in broad strokes. It can be both predictable and sentimental, neither of which are criticisms. On the contrary, a well-told fantasy can only embrace that predictability otherwise risks coming off as false. And barely a single-note of this melodic romance doesn’t ring true. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s screenplay is deftly written, bereft of cliché, with emotional dialogue that betrays an intelligence, one that considers race, relationships and the cynicism of the music industry, yet it plays out as a dreamy-eyed, almost naive, reflective take on Romeo and Juliet, complete with the rather different balcony scene and featuring two youngsters being pulled in opposite directions by their families.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw is wonderful as the troubled Noni. Her layered and honest performance is all the more remarkable for her not being a professional singer. They searched for a vocalist, who could act, but the focus on performance won out and you wouldn’t know the difference anyway. Listen out for “Grateful”, the Academy Award nominated original song by Diane Warren, and Nina Simone’s Blackbird, a key-stone of the narrative, is a goosebump moment to round out her character beautifully. The original intention was that Noni would be American, but finding Gugu meant that she could be British, giving the film a global feel and isolating her even more. And the London scenes are excellent. So often, US-centric films feel like they rush their foreign locations or worse, dip into stereotypes. Not so here. It simply feels like a British drama, then an American one. The trick to it’s success appears to be Gina Prince-Bythewood’s generous focus on the characters, regardless of where they are. Never showy, never in awe, her measured pacing and bright compositions complement the restrained tone and keeps the sentimentality at bay.
That the British angle was almost an after-thought is interesting considering the casting of Minnie Driver. Hers is a fiercely determined and complex role that may have lost some relevance had it been an all-American family. Well, at least lost to British viewers! Almost the villain of the tale, Driver still demands sympathy. Her performance is that of a single-mother seeing a way to give her daughter a better life.
It’s hard to be cynical about this breezy, wonderful drama with such believable characters you can immediately identify with, yet take a cynical side-long glance and you might find a problem with the story in that Noni has the privilege of already being a famous success; her first album is due for release following singles and awards. She might feel trapped, but what about the thousands of other talented unknown artists determined not to sell their souls? But that is precisely the very well-handled point and it comes to bear on Driver. This is a world where only image and media is important at the cost of personality and integrity, and it’s Noni’s mother that must bear the responsibility for losing sight of what is important.
Kaz, played by Nate Parker, is the key to getting Noni to believe in herself again, but a relationship with a raunchy pop-princess is just not going to work while he is being groomed for a life in politics. Over the course of the film, Kaz chips away, sometimes unwittingly, at Noni’s false exterior culminating in a sublime moment where the real her is revealed. Meanwhile, Noni shows Kaz a world he could only dream of.
Nate is a convincingly solid, rock-like presence and the chemistry between him and Gugu is the stuff you just can’t write (as proved by the dreadful Fifty Shades of Grey). You’re willing them to succeed. He’s convincing and measured, gently pushing back on his ambitious father, Danny Glover’s police captain. Softer than the ruthless Minnie Driver, yet still exudes a weight pulling on Kaz. It’s cheap to link Glover with Lethal Weapon again, he’s better than that, but I did have to smile when Kaz tells him that 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, as the record label’s public partner for Noni, both as a duet and a tabloid couple. An essential element of the narrative, but he represents the only point where both writing and performance fall short. I know you’re supposed to think he’s a misogynistic idiot, but when it’s clear the director already thinks that, there’s a problem with convincing us he’s a genuine character like the rest of the cast. Late in the film, a stage performance is particularly awkward. Heavily sexualised, clearly a commentary on the state of pop videos, but still, it’s a hard sell and one of… no, actually, the only point at which the spell was broken, especially as it results with Kaz running onto the stage. This felt like an impossible moment, given the setting. The film has its fair share of sentimentality, but only here does it jar, giving into the fantasy of the thing. Still, letting the film have its real boo-hiss villain works over-all. Baker is the only one without a good intention.
That’s a brief stumble and there’s otherwise a reassuring unassuming quality to Beyond the Lights. Even if the credibility is occasionally stretched, it is to a single purpose. Gina Prince-Bythewood’s experience shows and whether it’s her 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 and surely that is the test of any such performance.
The sad fact is you’ve likely never heard of this film. I hadn’t until it was championed by The Telegraph film critic Robbie Collin who had found 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 supported 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 (although 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 where I managed to track it down. Take a moment to do the same. It is an optimistic and beautifully played film, anchored by Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s incredible lead performance and it deserves far more attention.
Originally published for The Digital Fix: http://film.thedigitalfix.com/content/id/78591/beyond-the-lights.html