“Do you want to be a runner up, or do you want to be a winner?”
Fifteen minutes into Beyond the Lights and I was about to dismiss Gina Prince-Bythewood’s film as yet another formulaic celebrity romance trying to be this generation’s The Bodyguard. But after the story and the characters were introduced, I realized there was much more to the simple premise. This is a character driven film and despite the familiar premise the movie is carried by the wonderful performances from the cast and their well written characters. Gina uses a familiar tale but manages to give each character their very own identity and that takes the story to unfamiliar dramatic territory avoiding the common cliches found in modern romance movies. Bythewood made an impact in 2000 with her feature film debut, Love & Basketball and she followed the success of that movie with The Secret Life of Bees. Beyond the Lights is her third feature film, and it made such an impact on me that I want to see her two previous movies now. It’s not easy to find intelligent romantic films nowadays with strong performances, so that makes me appreciate Beyond the Lights all that more for avoiding cheap cliches and deciding to focus on the characters and giving them depth instead of simply trying to deliver cheesy lines and force romantic moments. Every character in this film could’ve very easily played a stereotype, but Gina avoids it by giving each one of them their own moment.
Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is a young and talented British R&B singer who is on the verge of becoming an international super star thanks to her collaborations with rapper Kid Culprit (Machine Gun Kelly) with whom she shares a relationship with. On the night in which they win an important music award for their hit single, Noni tries to commit suicide by jumping off from the hotel balcony, but she’s saved by the police officer who was guarding her room. Kaz (Nate Parker) is an honest cop who is trying to make a difference in his community and is aspiring to be a politician by following the advice of his father, Captain Nicol (Danny Glover), a well respected man in the police force. After the balcony incident Noni’s mother and agent, Macy Jean (Minnie Driver) downplays the suicide attempt by telling the media that her daughter was simply drunk and therefore almost fell over the balcony. Kaz isn’t happy about having to lie to the media, but he is more concerned about Noni not trying to get help because it is evident that the pressure has gotten to her, and her mother isn’t helping by downplaying the issue. He gets close to Noni, and it is evident that the two have chemistry, but she doesn’t seem like a good fit for his political aspirations given the latest scandals she’s been in and the sexy image she’s selling. At the same time he realizes that this isn’t who she really is and that her mother and recording label producers are simply creating her image and not allowing her to have her own voice. When he discovers who she truly is, the two become romantically involved and the plot takes off from there.
Minnie Driver’s character could have easily been one dimensional playing this mean and controlling mom/manager, but Gina avoids those stereotypes and gives her more room to work with despite how easy it is to dislike her for turning her daughter into this sex symbol product. This is just one example of how Gina decides to direct this character driven film giving each one a voice of their own. Another director perhaps wouldn’t of included those small moments or conversations where we get a sense of why the character behaves in such a way.
Nate Parker delivers a solid lead performance as this credible and likable young man who is trying to make a difference in his community, but it’s Gugu who steals every scene she’s in. At first she seems to be playing a similar character to Rihanna, but once she finds her own voice her character goes through an impressive transformation. She gives an explosive and emotional performance and wins everyone over with her wonderful voice. There is a scene where she sings a cappella in an outdoor bar in Mexico that is breathtaking and gripping at the same time. My only complaint is that the film does lose some of its steam towards the end of the movie, but the time spent with each one of these characters still made this a very enjoyable experience.