Beyond the Lights

Posted by Joel Copling on November 14, 2014

Fame is a fickle friend. Few know this better than Noni Jean (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), upon whom the burden of celebrity was thrust at a young age. "Beyond the Lights" is Noni's story. We've seen it before, but as the late Roger Ebert once intoned, it's not what the movie is about, it's how it is about it. Director Gina Prince-Bythewood's screenplay covers the same general formula that cinematic stories of fame (whether true or not) have followed in the past, but this one rises above the recent inconsequential likes of 2012's "Sparkle." Its emotion runs as deep as its soundtrack, which pulses with songs both original (Any of them could win the Academy Award in February 2015, and a nomination for at least one should not be overlooked) and pre-existing (a particularly soulful use of Beyonce's "Drunk in Love," for instance).

As a child in the south of London, Noni was raised by single mother Macy (Minnie Driver, excellent), who had her when she was 17 and proceeded to be abandoned by her parents and the father of her child. The one path for her daughter was music, proven by Noni's proclivity for immediately picking up the melody of Nina Simone's "Blackbird" at the age of seven months. And thus the long path to being a "winner" and not a "runner-up" (The opening scene, set in 1998, has Macy teaching a ten-year-old Noni, played by India Jean-Jacques, the valuable lesson of throwing away a first-place-runner-up trophy) begins. In the present day, Noni is on the cusp of being re-signed to a label following Billboard success due to a collaboration with American rapper Kid Culprit (Richard Colson "Machine Gun Kelly" Baker).

But it isn't enough for Noni, who attempts suicide one evening by jumping off the balcony of one of the many hotels in which she has stayed while on the road to success. She is saved by Kaz (Nate Parker), a cop with a heart of gold and dreams of the political variety (Books on President Barack Obama spell out his ultimate goal pretty blatantly, as well as all these good-standing meetings that his father, a police captain played by a touching Danny Glover, sets up for him). He insists that the act was merely him just doing his job. He and Noni build a romantic relationship on the basis of what is technically a public lie (For the sake of publicity, she tells press that she was drunk and wearing stilettos on a balcony, and that's explanation enough, though one reporter pokes a hole in this, commenting that a four-and-a-half-foot-high railing would have prevented a fall; whoever said part of fame was owning common logic?).

Clearly, this is familiar stuff, but the film succeeds on the basis of Noni, whose talent as singer and performer is clear when seen in concert mode (In style and physical appearance, she is positioned in her own story as an English answer to Rihanna, a comparison this writer thinks is generous and accurate), and Mbatha-Raw, whose embodiment of Noni's spirit, outward beauty, and internal conflict (which is more convincing, overall, than the external kind, such as Driver's over-protective mother or the intrusive paparazzi in the media) is worthy of all the accolades possible. Parker is also solid at convincing us that Kaz, whose full name is indeed the same as the late-1990s character played by Shaquille O'Neal, just wants to make the level-headed decisions, even if some of them are difficult. "Beyond the Lights" is, it begs to be said, an affecting study of fame and where to go from there once one has obtained it.

Film Information

Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Noni), Nate Parker (Kaz), Minnie Driver (Macy), Danny Glover (Capt. Nicol), Richard Colson "Machine Gun Kelly" Baker (Kid Culprit), Tyler Christopher (Liam King), India Jean-Jacques (Younger Noni).

Directed and written by Gina Prince-Bythewood.

Rated PG-13 (sexual content including suggestive gestures, partial nudity, language, thematic elements).

116 minutes.

Released on November 14, 2014.