I still can’t bring myself to spend the 3 hours and 9 minutes it takes to watch Interstellar, but I was happy to go see the under two hour romance/drama Beyond the Lights.
There are many movies that tell the tale of what it’s “really” like to be a music superstar from the musician’s point of view. A Star is Born certainly comes to mind, as well as the movie version of the play Dreamgirls.
They all seem to let us know that the fame and glory is not all it’s cracked up to be.
Beyond the Lights is written and directed by UCLA film grad Gina Prince-Bythewood (Secret Life of Bees, Disappearing Acts – which features Wesley Snipes and Sanaa Lathan as a couple after she had played his mother in Blade – save that in your trivia folder, and Love and Basketball). It tells the story of Noni, a British pop tart, whose career has been carefully crafted by her mom-ager to make her a superstar. She feels like she doesn’t exist, and is only the shell created by her mother and label. She finally feels pushed to the breaking point one night after winning a Billboard award, and is about to jump from the balcony of her hotel room. However, Kaz, the police officer hired as security for the night, saves her - convincing her that she is worth saving. They begin a difficult relationship, working between his aspiring political career, and her very complicated career and half-relationship with a label-mate and rapper. Eventually he helps her see that she does have some control over her own existence, giving her the inspiration to write and perform her own music. Spoiler alert – there is a happy ending.
It’s a pretty standard plot, but what makes is really watchable is the exceptional directing. Prince-Bythewood shoots the movie in a clean, straightforward way, but with enough layers that every time you have to watch Noni at “work”, you cringe. Everything she is requested to do by her label – and by her mother – makes you so incredibly uncomfortable that you really understand why she is so unhappy. You also begin to completely understand how Kaz also feels pressure to live up to the expectations of his own family. The soundtrack also works really well with the simplicity of the direction. However, the movie is truly elevated by some supremely elegant performances.
- Gugu Mbatha-Raw was recently in the movie Bell, was Tish Jones on Dr. Who, and was Samantha on the Undercovers, a show I loved that got canceled way too quickly. She was very impressive in this movie, particularly because almost the entire first half of the movie requires her to act with only her eyes. She manages to look sad and empty until she finally connects with Kaz. Also – the physical transformation from the Noni that her mother has crafted to the Noni that Kaz helps to release is really beautiful.
- Nate Parker from Secret Life of Bees, Non-Stop, and Red Tails plays Kazam, who takes the shift of a buddy guarding a pop-star, and has his carefully crafted gameplan thrown all into a tizzy. His father is very supportive of his plan (political science major, cop, then politician), in fact, he’s helping Kaz meet with various community leaders so that he will have their support when he runs for office. Parker, like Mbatha-Raw can communicate multiple emotions with just his eyes, from confusion with her ‘performance’, to raw hurt when she inevitably hurts him, to pure love once they reach their happy ending. Also – there’s several shirtless scenes, and he is incredibly lovely with or without a shirt, but I really appreciated the shirtlessness.
- Minnie Driver is the best in this that I have seen her in a long time. Perhaps since her cameo as the Russian cowgirl in Goldeneye. She’s so angular and hard as Macy, Noni’s completely controlling mother. You do realize by the end that she does love her daughter, but she has spent so much of the movie treating her like a product that by that point, she’s almost past redemption. The scene at the beginning where she tells a young Noni to throw away her runner up trophy because she needs to be a winner is heartbreaking.
- Danny Glover plays Kaz’s dad, Captain Nicol. And while he never states that he’s too old for this sh*t, you can see him thinking that almost the whole time. Especially when he realizes his son, who he has carefully groomed for a political career just punched out a rapper on stage at the BET awards. Yes – that happens. Glover does manage to give the Captain some subtle layers, as you begin to realize that while he’s not as controlling as Noni’s mother, his influence is just as heavy on Kaz.
- Machine Gun Kelly (yes, that is his rapper name – his real name is Richard Colson Baker) is a Cleveland rapper who plays Kid Culprit – Noni’s label-mate and “boyfriend”. It seems like their entire relationship has been crafted by the label for the sake of selling records (you can read a Rhianna-Drake bit into that if you like). She attempts to break up with him, which seems to go fine, but then he sexually assaults her onstage at the BET awards, prompting the aforementioned punch from Kaz. Also – the fake music video they show that is Noni and Kid, man, I was way too old to watch that!
Overall, the movie is simple, straightforward, and predictable – but I really feel like the performances gave it just enough edge to make it better than I was expecting. It’s certainly worth seeing, if you don’t expect too much, I think you’ll be pleased.
8 out of 10 - I wasn’t expecting anything, so I was really pleasantly surprised. Gained points for the insane costumes that Mbatha-Raw had to wear, lost points for Machine Gun Kelly – ick. Gained points for all the Kaz shirtless scenes, and lost points for Macy encouraging Noni to get naked in photo shoots. Gained points for their getaway at a Mexican resort where she removes her ‘mask’.
Bonus Video 1: The Bodyguard – vaguely similar, but also really entertaining. And that soundtrack!?!
Bonus Video 2: The Undercovers – rent this series. Mbatha-Raw and Boris Kodjoe
Bonus Video 3: RedTails – a highly entertaining flick that you should see.
Bonus Video 4: cast Interviews: