“Beyond the Lights” gave me two things to remember. First, while reminding me again of my serious lack of knowledge on pop songs, it enlightened me a bit on Nina Simone, an African American singer I was not so familiar with until I watched the movie, and her soulful song “Blackbird”. Second, it is anchored by a terrific performance at its center, and this is one of the reasons which make this seemingly average show business drama film quite heartfelt at times.
There was a time when she and her mother struggled a lot in some shabby neighbourhood of London during their early years, but Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is now almost close to stardom as a new pop singer to watch in US after having been pushed for years by her mother Macy (Minnie Driver), a feisty woman who has relentlessly driven not only her daughter but also herself as Noni’s manager. While Noni is not very comfortable with her tawdry public image manufactured by her label, she sings and dances as demanded by her label and her mother, and we see a gaudy music video sequence which disturbingly reminds me of how female entertainers are usually sexualized as mere objects of desire in our current pop culture.
Even after receiving the Billboard Music award for her recent work with a rapper star named Kid Culprit (Richard Colson Baker, a.k.a. Machine Gun Kelly), Noni looks depressed and unhappy, and she eventually reaches to the breaking point when she returns to her hotel room. She goes out to the balcony, and then she is about to jump over the railing when Macy senses something wrong and then goes inside the room with Kaz (Nate Parker), a young hunky police officer who happens to guard the room at that point.
Fortunately, Noni is saved by Kaz in the last minute, and the aftermath of her ‘accident’ is handled well on the media thanks to Macy and Kaz, but many tabloid reporters are still sniffing around her for any possible scoop while Noni and Kaz find themselves getting more involved with each other after their incident. Their initial interactions are strained, but Noni approaches toward Kaz even though she is virtually followed by many paparazzi everyday, and Kaz cannot say no to her because, besides their mutual attraction, he sees from Noni a sad, unhappy woman who really needs some help and comfort.
However, his circumstance is not exactly ideal for this kind of romance. Backed by his influential police chief father, Kaz is at the crucial point of his life which may lead to the beginning of his possible political career in the future, and his father, played by Danny Glover, advises to his son that getting involved with a scandalous entertainer can be a very unwise move for his career because, after all, politics depend on public image as much as show business.
Anyway, Noni and Kaz feel happy whenever they get a chance to be with each other alone, and, through her growing intimate relationship with Kaz, Noni rediscovers herself as well as her artistic need. As a talented girl who has personally written a number of songs, she has always wanted to express herself in her own way, and she is willing for that more than ever as becoming truer to herself during her own private time with Kaz.
After giving a moving performance as a young British lady struggling with her social/biological identity in British period drama “Belle” (2013), Gugu Mbatha-Raw shows more of her acting range here in this film. Besides being believable as a promising pop star during a couple of stage performance scenes in the film (she also sang for herself), this wonderful British actress is also engaging in her lead performance which is both sensitive and dynamic, and the gradual transformation process inside her vulnerable but ultimately resilient character is touching to watch especially when she finally grabs a small but precious chance to sing with real feelings and no pretension.
The supporting performers around Mbatha-Raw are also good as ably supporting her on the screen. Nate Parker has nice chemistry with his co-star, and he gets his own moment when Kaz presents his potential as a young hopeful politician in front of his possible backers. Richard Colson Baker is despicable as a rude rapper who surely deserves what he gets at the end of his very unpleasant stage performance with Noni, and that hurtful moment certainly made me hope that Baker is a nicer person in reality.
Minnie Driver, whom I noticed for the first time through her Oscar-nominated turn in “Good Will Hunting” (1997) when I was becoming more serious about watching movies, is standout as a mother who confuses her wish for her daughter’s success with her ambition for her own success. While recognizing her selfish and manipulative aspects, the movie does not overlook how much Macy has worked and fought hard for her only daughter, and Driver’s brief last scene in the film gives us a short but meaningful glimpse into the complex relationship between Macy and her daughter.
The director/writer Gina Prince-Bythewood tried hard to get her film made as she envisioned from the very beginning, and her efforts are translated well into a good music drama whose music actually serves as an important part of its narrative (it recently received a Best Song Oscar nomination, by the way). While not that flashy or showy compared to other recent music drama films, “Beyond the Lights” has its own way to play familiar music, and it does its job well enough to touch us in the end.