Every week, the folks at iTunes find a movie they like and make it available to rent for the low, low price of $0.99. I’m here to tell you whether that film is worth your hard earned dollar.
This week brings us Beyond The Lights, a slickly produced, mostly hollow story of a tortured pop star trying to find her way and – wait for it… herself – in the celebrity fueled world of the LA music scene. Sound familiar? Trust me, it is.
The Singer and the Song
We first meet Noni as a young girl being dragged around by her Mother (the wonderful Minnie Driver) for a last minute hair fix before a small-time talent competition.
A day later, and hair all did up, Noni shows up to perform. The song she sings, Nina Simone‘s Blackbird, may be a little heavy for the youngster, but she knocks it out of the park. Unfortunately, in their small British town it’s only good enough for 2nd place…which is not good enough for Mom.
Jump ahead 15ish years and Noni (played by the luminous Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is all grown up, sexed up and pop-starred out (skeezy rapper-boyfriend and everything). Oh, and she’s still being dragged around by her Mother/now manager. After winning a Billboard Award (I guess they still have those?) before her 1st album is even released, Noni retreats to the confines of her hotel room for some peace before heading out on the town for after parties. It’s there that she meets Kaz (a bland Nate Parker), the handsome cop guarding her door. Through circumstances beyond his control (romantic sparks don’t exactly fly) Kaz and Noni share a moment. They “see” each other, in fact, and what that means to each of them is what drives the tired plot of Beyond The Lights.
Second Verse, Same As The First
If films about musicians/singers often feel formulaic, that’s because there is a general formula for this sort of story. Throughout her clunky, overlong script, Beyond The Lights writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood plays most of the standard notes with minimal effort in providing any real substance for her story.
- Troubled singer trying to find their soul – check
- Overbearing parent (or manager) driving them over the edge – check
- Blue collar love interest who may just help them sort it all out – check
- Period of time/reflection away from the scene before ultimately returning to the action – check
You get the idea. This film is one “accidental overdose” away from hitting all the high marks from every musical biopic from last decade and beyond. Surprisingly, I read quite a few reviews of Beyond The Lights that claim it avoided most of the standard “music movie tropes” (it even has an 81%fresh rating over at Rotten Tomatoes). I find myself wondering what movie those people were watching. Or maybe they just hadn’t heard of movies like Coal Minor’s Daughter, The Bodyguard, Walk The Line, Ray, Crazy Heart, Control, Pure Country, Begin Again, Things Behind The Sun…etc…etc…etc. Those are all much better films, by the way.
Where Beyond The Lights truly fails is where it tries to separate itself from that pack. A little commentary about the silliness and the dangers of pop stardom actually starts to push the movie into more interesting areas, but it loses it’s spine about halfway through and tragically ends up embracing that culture instead.
Beyond The Lights does not fail on all fronts, though. The cast of this film shines, possibly out of spite for Prince-Bythewood’s half-baked script, and raise Beyond The Lights almost to the level of proper entertainment.
The supporting cast is fronted by Minnie Driver, whose intense portrayal of Mother/Manager, Macy Jean, sets the tone for why Noni is who she is and why she’s so conflicted about all of that. Macy Jean may be the most complicated character in Beyond The Lights and Driver knows just what corners to let her dwell in. Driver brings a fierceness to the role that I haven’t seen from her over the years, but layers just enough tenderness below the surface that we can’t really dislike her. Danny Glover is on hand in a beautifully restrained performance as Kaz’s Father, Captain Nicol. Where Driver’s Macy Jean is overpowering and overbearing, Glover’s Nicol is far quieter but still just as overbearing. He’s a good man who only wants his son to have a better life than him…but significantly better. There’s a fierce drive behind that demeanor, and Glover plays Nicol as the sort of Father that doesn’t fully realize how manipulative he’s being.
The stars of Beyond The Lights are both relative newcomers. You may recognize Nate Parker from a slew of supporting roles over the last decade. He’s a fine actor, but he comes off mostly bland in Beyond The Lights. Hard to fault Parker as his Kaz is the weakest link in this poorly written film. Kaz is a super-good guy cop with political aspirations…and that’s all we know about him. Parker does what he can, and his charm is almost enough make Kaz a genuine character, but there’s just not enough time for him to develop in this film. In the end, he’s resigned to being little more than a prop for Mbatha-Raw’s Noni.
Now there’s a star. Remember the name folks, because (whether you can pronounce it or not) Gugu Mbatha-Raw is going to be one you hear plenty of in the coming years. So wonderfully restrained in 2013’s Belle, Mbatha-Raw takes things the other direction in Beyond The Lights. Here Noni is not exactly a diva, but she’s not exactly holding things back either. Equal parts sex and soul, Noni is whatever the people around her need her to be in any given moment. It’s Mbatha-Raw’s ability to seemlessly slip into and out of each facade
that makes the performance such a joy to watch. When she finally starts tearing away the layers and being herself with Kaz, it’s like she’s becoming herself for the first time since that little girl sang Blackbird. Noni sings that song again as an adult. Mbatha-Raw plays the scene to perfection and it is the one moment of Beyond The Lights that makes it almost worth watching.
Beyond The Lights fails because it simply refuses to look beyond them. I can’t recommend you spending even $0.99 on this film. It’s a shallow mess of a thing all gussied up and pretending it’s got something to say…which I suppose would make it great pop satire if that’s what it was aiming for. It’s not, of course, and even the stellar acting cannot manage to save it from itself.
Take it Home Rita Ora
Speaking of pop music, there’s tons in Beyond The Lights. I’m not much for cheesy pop songs, but even I can tell that the original songs for this film are top notch. Good enough for a ticket to the 87th Annual Academy Awards was the original number “Grateful” written by Diane Warren. You can see Rita Ora’s Oscar night performance of “Grateful” right here.