In the early 2000’s, I saw an exceptional film called Love and Basketball, a romantic drama following the lives of two young basketball players, one who goes on to the WNBA, and her soul mate, who becomes an NBA star. For years I’ve always wondered why the writer/director, Gina Prince-Bythewood wasn’t making more films. Looking at her credits, she directed one other feature (2008’s The Secret Life of Bees) and done some television work. Whatever the reason that has held up this gifted director from getting more work, it’s wonderful to have her back, this time helming last fall’s Beyond the Lights. This sleeper hit drew a considerable audience for a film that was neither a franchise film or based on a New York Times bestseller. Now on Blu-ray, more people are bound to discover this movie, and hopefully Prince-Bythewood won’t have to go so long between projects.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw, one of 2014’s breakout actresses (she also starred in the period drama, Belle.), takes the lead as Noni, a rising star in the hip-hop world. Her guest appearances on the songs of an Eminem-like rapper named Kid Culprit (Colson “MGK” Baker) have led to an album of her own that’s about to drop. Years of hard work and backstage manipulating by her domineering mother, Macy (an excellent Minnie Driver) are finally paying off. Except, Noni is miserable. Whereas she once dreamed of singing ballads like of Nina Simone’s “Blackbird,” she’s instead purring sexually explicit lyrics and objectifying herself with skimpy outfits and bump and grind dance moves.
On the night Noni and Kid Culprit win a major award, she retires to her hotel room and contemplates leaping from the balcony to her death. Before she can jump, Noni is rescued by an LAPD officer assigned to watch her room named Kaz (Nate Parker). He’s an ambitious, honest cop, but he agrees to go along with a cover-up to protect the fragile singer’s career, primarily because she please with him and he feels an instant connection with her.
All of this happens in the film’s first fifteen minutes. It’s a credit to Prince-Bythewood’s storytelling skills that so much of the backstory explaining Noni’s depression is handled with a couple of expressions or a few words from Mbatha-Raw. We don’t need a half hour to figure out how Noni’s mental health; we can see it in her eyes and the way she carries herself.
Noni is drawn to Kaz, not because he’s a chiseled, handsome man (he is), but because he’s the first person who sees the real Noni. Kaz sees through the manufactured image of a Rhianna-wannabe and finds a tortured soul being pushed and pulled in directions she doesn’t want to go. The love that blossoms between Noni and Kaz makes up the central plot to Beyond the Lights.
With shades of A Star is Born and story elements that mirror the lives of Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland, Beyond the Lights is a cautionary tale about the price of fame. Drugs and alcohol never play a factor in Noni’s sudden fall from fame, but her mental health does. As the film progresses the state of her career is questioned. Record execs and the public wonder if she’s healthy enough to promote her record. As Macy prods her daughter to pull it together, Noni turns to Nate to find her way out of the turmoil. Through his love and understanding, the gifted singer begins to find her real voice.
On screen Mbatha-Raw and Parker make a wonderful couple. Each exhibits strength and courage in their roles. The heart of the film belongs to Noni’s story and Mbath-Raw takes us on a great journey as the character grows. In addition to being a fine actress, Mbatha-Raw also has a beautiful singing Voice. The double whammy of Belle and Beyond the Lights show that this actress is destined for bigger movies down the road (I won’t say better because her two films are both great). Although a minor subplot that finds Kaz running for city council provides Parker with more to do, it’s not really needed. The actor does his best work when opposite Mbatha-Raw.
With the critical and commercial success of Beyond the Light, I hope that Prince-Bythewood doesn’t have to wait another six years to get a film made. She’s a bright, shining star in the genre of women cinema and hers is a voice that needs to be heard more frequently.
The Blu-ray of Beyond the Lights comes with the theatrical version of the movie and a director’s cut. It also contains commentary by the director, deleted scenes and a music video.