Whenever a film tackles the pop/rock music-industry – particularly from the point of view of the performer – there’s always that sense of artificiality to the music and the way it’s presented, not to mention the concern that by the time the film is released, the musical style the film is representing may already be on the decline.
Some of that remains true for the new drama from writer/director Gine Prince-Bythewood, Beyond the Lights, the story of the industry’s newest rising star, Noni Jean (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and the pressures that come with being that star. Yet somehow, despite itself, the film still manages to succeed, due mostly to the performances of its three leads, Mbatha-Raw, Nate Parker and Minnie Driver and a few home-truths.
When we first meet Noni it’s 1998 in the working-class area of Brixton, London. Single mother Macy Jean (Driver) has groomed her cockney high-school daughter to win the Richmond National Youth Talent Competition. “What are you going to sing?” the organizer asks. “Blackbird,” young Noni replies. “Nina Simone?” the organizer responds, impressed, and Noni proceeds to sing unaccompanied, and it’s a beauty, particularly when performed with such assurance by someone so young.
But it’s not enough to win. Noni is placed second and her mother is livid. “Chuck it,” the demanding mother demands of her daughter, referring to the award in her daughter’s hand. “You wanna be a winner, not a runner up!” And at this point we know two things: 1) Noni can really sing, and 2) Mom is a problem.
Jump from London to present day America and Noni is now a superstar. Audiences love her, fans flock to the concerts, and her steamy, overtly sexual videos are all over the TV. She’s just about to release her first full-length CD – still referred to as an album – when something happens. Having just won a Billboard Music award, she retreats to her hotel penthouse suite with orders to the police guards to not let anyone in. Once alone, she hauls herself to the balcony, climbs on the railing and gets ready to jump.
But the suicide attempt is thwarted. LAPD officer Kaz Nicol (Parker) opens the hotel door, spies Noni about to leap and rescues her. As Noni’s team of assistants, not to mention her dominating mother, rush in and pull her away from the arms of the heroic cop, ready to spin the superstar’s story to the press, Noni and Kaz lock eyes, and it’s in that single moment when they stare at each other that something between them connects.
What follows is a fairy tale of love between Noni, the English superstar and Kaz the L.A. police office, with Noni’s mother and the music industry always around to come between them. “Noni is the girl every guy wants and every girl wants to be,” a record company exec explains. “We’re selling a fantasy here, and suicide is not part of it.”
Having won hearts and minds as Dido in the recent costume drama Belle, Mbatha-Raw repeats all the promises of that earlier performance and delivers them here in Beyond the Lights but with the addition of singing. There’s a moment when hidden away from the madding crowd Noni strips away the pop star façade, removes the hair extensions plus the wig and the make-up, and for just a while she suddenly resembles the young high-schooler we saw back in Brixton, and she’s quite beautiful. Plus, when she sings an unaccompanied and impromptu version of Nina Simone’s Blackbird again, this time as an adult, Mbatha-Raw does something other performers in similar movie scenes never quite pull off; with control and careful phrasing, not to mention a sound voice, the actor truly convinces. Compared to what is currently presented as a pop superstar in the real playing field, Mbatha-Raw’s portrayal as Noni gives them all a run for their money.
Credit also to both Parker as Kaz the cop torn between the love of a pop star and a potential political career and Minnie Driver as the unstoppable, overbearing mother who appears to be living her life through her daughter’s success. “We both know this lady ain’t First Lady material,” Kaz’s father, Danny Glover tells his son when love threatens to derail political ambition, and when Noni confronts her mother, the woman slaps her daughter across the face while yelling, “Don’t you dare question my love for you.”
Melodrama and tacky glitz aside, Beyond the Lights also works when tackling a couple of very real issues associated with the pressures of fame, maintaining success and what happens when you’re whole life seems to be in the hands of someone else. Watching the pain Noni goes through in order to simply sing for a living you have to question why is being a product of the musical showbiz industry so seductively attractive in the first place? As portrayed here – and we have no reason to believe things for the marketing of this style of performer is any different in the real world – depending on your own values of success, the misery can’t be worth it.
What makes this a fairy tale is the love story. How many stars do you know marry outside of the industry? Can you imagine Mariah Carey marrying the mail man or Beyoncé announcing an engagement to the plumber? Falling in love with the cop assigned to guard your hotel door is not only a whimsy, the industry itself would come between them. But that’s what happens in Beyond the Lights, a wish-fulfillment fantasy of an ordinary guy in love with a superstar and how that love is returned. And what’s even better, against all odds, the film has the ending you probably wanted all along.
MPAA rating: PG-13 Length: 102 Minutes Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)