“Beyond the Lights” opens theatrically this Friday, November 14, 2014. Here’s our review…
Who didn’t want to be a singer when they grew up? I know I did.
My friends and I would perform imaginary concerts to SWV and TLC records, using
TV remotes as microphones. In a strange way, I still view music and singing as
my original passion, and often wonder what my life would’ve been like if I’d
pursued that passion.
In “Beyond The Lights,” Director Gina Prince-Bythewood weaves a story of music and romance, examining
how a young girl’s (Noni Jean) youthful aspirations to become a singer are later
shaped by the image-obsessed pop culture landscape her music exists in. Struggling
with her newfound success, she attempts suicide, but is saved by a police
officer, Kaz (Nate Parker), who sees something deeper in her.
This description runs the risk of not being compelling, but
it is. That is the gift of Gina Prince Bythewood- her ability to infuse a level
of meaning into subjects that are often plagued with clichés. In “Love and Basketball,” she transported us to a high school prom as fellow basketball player-BFF’s Monica (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy (Omar
Epps) intensely stared at each other while dancing with their respective dates,
only to make love with one another that night to the classic Maxwell remake, “This Woman’s Work.”
Bythewood works her same magic here. Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Noni Jean and Parker and are beautifully matched, and the fruits of their chemistry are best shown in the
ways their faces and bodies move, dance, and blend together. From Parker’s
awkward, turned-on smirks to shots of their brown skin under soft natural
light, they electrify. They are hot, and it’s nothing like watching two hot
people get to know each other in strange, yet interesting ways, like watching airplanes
fly overhead while Noni sneaks a meal of soul food that her showbiz mother doesn’t want her to eat.
Minnie Driver plays her showbiz mom, Macy Jean, who vacillates
between loving protector and media mogul reminiscent of P. Diddy. Her
performance elevates the character beyond villain into a complex negotiator attempting
to rear her daughter in an extreme world winning, of being the best even if it
means making music that you don’t like, or getting naked for men behind video
In the wrong hands, this film could’ve been ruined. It
could’ve been a simplistic mirror of the pop culture world it sought to
examine. But Bythewood writes and directs Noni as a textured character we want
to follow, not only as she performs onstage, but also in her real life. She is fascinating in the way Rihanna or Nicki
Minaj might be if they were stripped of the ability to mold an image, if we were
allowed into the warring sides of their lives, minus the mainstream media
filter and Instagram/Twitter posts.
Bythewood’s film is smart because it studies
Nona closely, alongside the chauvinist media environment where there is a person struggling, and that struggle is relatable. Mbatha-Raw
infuses this role with a vulnerable fierceness. She is in control of her
sexuality, while being encouraged to sell it as a commodity. Contrasting the catchy, sex-drenched lyrics and music video images with later
scenes of her singing Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” to Kaz without makeup on, only deepens
this dual focus.
Meanwhile, Kaz seems to be living life in balance,
collecting inspiring quotes and running for office, but when they connect, the
logic of his life and hers become uncertain. That is the beauty of love, and of
this love story. In a scene on an airplane, all of these things merge wonderfully-
flight, sexuality, fun and you’ll never listen to Beyonce’s “Drunk In Love” the
same way again.
Watching this film, I couldn’t help draw parallels to some
popular singers who either succumbed to a premature demise or
flirted with the possibility- Amy Winehouse, whose history of drug abuse and
mental illness lead to her eventual death. This film gives insight into how
these tragedies occur in a glitzy environment that treasures pop culture product
over personal worth or mental health. When human torment is left
unchecked for the benefit of a larger, public consumption, something is lost,
and sometimes it is a life.
Shot beautifully by Tami Reiker with vivacious musical offerings by The Dream, this is a fun, strange, beautiful love story about the
textures of life we don’t often identify in people until we truly see them.
The film opens in theaters November 14th.