During my constant perusal of the local theater listings, for some unknown reason I kept skipping over one title. Perhaps it was that I had never heard of “Beyond the Lights,” or maybe the poster didn’t attract my attention. Whatever the reason I avoided looking into the film, but then this week as I considered my choices to review, it suddenly became a bit more attractive.
I really didn’t feel like sitting through nearly three hours of “Interstellar” (I do want to see it though.), and I just couldn’t subject myself to the idiocy of “Dumb and Dumber 2.” Thus I opted for “Beyond the Lights,” which turned out to be a very effective and different kind of love story featuring what could well be breakthrough performances for the movie’s two young stars.
The story begins in England, where single mom Macy Jean (Minnie Driver) has taken her 10-year-old daughter, Noni (India Jean-Jacques), to a talent competition. Noni is a singer, and when the judges reach their decision, Noni is awarded the trophy for first runner-up. Instead of being happy for her daughter, however, Macy Jean pulls Noni off the stage and stomps out of the building with the child in tow.
When they arrive in the parking lot, Macy Jean expresses her displeasure with the judges and orders Noni to smash her new trophy on the pavement. When the girl hesitates, Marcy Jean hisses, “Do you want be just a runner-up?” Noni dutifully obeys her mother, and the two of them get into the car.
Now we flash ahead a number of years to Los Angeles, where Noni (now played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) has just won a Billboard Award even though she hasn’t yet recorded a full album. Everything has fallen into place for her, but despite being poised on the brink of stardom, Noni is an extremely troubled young woman.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or Sherlock Holmes to deduce that most of Noni’s problems are the result of her being constantly pressured by her demanding and domineering mother. After the awards ceremony Noni returns to her hotel room and orders the police officer named Kaz (Nate Parker) guarding her door not to let anyone else in. This of course doesn’t apply to her mother, who arrives a short time later, and after she enters the room, Kaz hears her scream Noni’s name. Sensing trouble, he bursts through the door to discover that Noni is outside on the balcony poised to jump. Kaz manages to save her life, and the love story that’s the nucleus of the film is born.
Although Noni and Kaz are very different, the one thing they have in common is unrelenting parental pressure. In Kaz’s case it comes from his father (Danny Glover), who wants his son to enter the world of politics. But as the relationship between Kaz and Noni blossoms, they both realize they want to live their own lives. In the film’s production notes both young stars offered insight into their respective characters.
“She’s (Noni) just won a Billboard Award and, everything is going fantastically with her career,” Mbatha-Raw said. “Everybody just adores her, and then she tries to end her life. Suddenly we see that this seemingly perfect person is actually deeply unhappy and feels her whole life has been masterminded by her mother. She feels trapped and that there’s no way out.”
Parker said, “Kaz was raised right, but he’s flawed like everyone else. Noni’s this Rihanna/Beyonce-type living a lifestyle contrary to the way he’s been brought up. He’s leveraging the way he’s been raised and his morality against what’s happening every day in her life and the things that are acceptable in her life.”
What gives the film its great appeal as a love story is chemistry between Mbatha-Raw and Parker. From the moment Kaz saves Noni’s life, you can feel the electricity between the two of them, and the way they look at each other says everything. The tender moments they share on the screen also rank right up there with similar segments in many other great love stories Hollywood has turned out. Mabatha-Raw and Parker effectively put all of the characters’ respective emotions on display in two performances worthy of veteran actors, and Mbatha-Raw does her own singing in a voice that’s something special.
In addition to being about love, the film also is a coming-of-age story for Noni as Mabatha-Raw explained in the production notes.
“They’re from different sides of the tracks in some aspects. Kaz is very solid and grounded. As a police officer, he works in the real world while Noni works in the artificial bubble of the music industry. Noni discovers her own voice in more ways than one. She finds love when she meets Kaz, who stops her from jumping off the balcony. They develop a relationship, and she is able to finally become a woman, stand up to her mother, and make her own way in the industry.”
In addition to the work of Mbatha-Raw and Parker in the film, bother Driver and Glover turn in strong supporting performances as two single parents who want the best for their respective offspring but just aren’t quite sure how to go about achieving it.
This movie also offers an intriguing inside look at the music industry, and it isn’t always pretty. Noni’s rocky (to say the least) relationship with a rapper illustrates just how nasty things can get in that world sometimes. And it can be an especially difficult place for women to work.
Although I’m not a big fan of R&B music, I enjoyed “Beyond the Lights,” and I recommend it as a good date movie. The main characters are extremely likable and make us hope for their success. The movie also is a refreshing change of pace from everything else that’s playing right now, and it earns the final score of a foot-tapping eight.