“Beyond the Lights” is another pain-behind-the-music romance.
But it’s so well written, cast and played that we lose ourselves in the
comfort food familiarity of it all. This hip hop era “Bodyguard” has heart and
soul, thanks to stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Minnie Driver and Nate Parker. Simple as
it is, it simply works.
Mbatha-Raw shows a totally different set of skills from those on display in
her breakout period piece hit “Belle.” As rising hip hop phenom Noni, she sings
about her frankest desires and provocatively dances in outfits that leave little
to the imagination.
She’s dating the star rapper Kid Culprit (Machine Gun Kelly) who
guest-starred on her debut record. She doesn’t drink and never loses track of
the album that’s about to drop. Her driven stage mother/manager (Minnie Driver)
sees to it that Noni’s eyes are on the prize.
But Noni is in misery. On impulse, on what should be her moment of glory, she
gets drunk and staggers out onto a balcony to jump. Only the cop assigned to
guard her door can save her.
That’s the question that hangs over the rest of the movie. Can Officer Kaz
Nicol (Nate Parker) save Noni? From herself, her mother, a career path that is
as phony as her streaked weave, the falsies her handlers stuff into her bra
before each photo shoot, the sexpot persona that’s been built for her?
The twists to writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s (“Love &
Basketball”, “The Secret Life of Bees”) film come from the competing agendas set
up here. Officer Nicol is the son of an L.A.P.D. captain (Danny Glover), a kid
being groomed for politics.
Whatever the tabloids and gossip websites think did or didn’t happen on that
balcony could be damaging for Noni. But Kaz’s interest in helping her, his
supposedly reluctant “reward” for becoming her “hero” and thus a part of her
celebrity world, could be fatal to his ambitions. The exhibitionist singer can
succeed with notoriety. But “Hero Cop” could write off his political
future.Parker (“The Great Debaters,” “Red Tails”) has made “earnest” and
shirt-shedding roles a specialty, and he benefits here by us seeing his
conflicted character through Noni’s eyes.
Flashbacks show us the painful past that put Noni where she is, and show the
authentic voice the young working-class Brit seemingly borrowed from the late
jazz and soul chanteuse Nina Simone. Driver’s stage mom isn’t painted in broad,
monstrous colors. She’s just another damaged, needy woman living vicariously
through a child who has chances she never had.
The unutterably gorgeous Mbatha-Raw has the best “You had me at hello” eyes
in the business and the charisma that has us rooting for her, for love, no
matter the role. The real shock here is her musical presence, a voice that could
take her into intimate clubs for the rest of her life, or with the right skimpy
costumes and sexual choreography, into Nicki Minaj World.
She gives life to this old-fashioned/sexually frank romance, totally
believable as a woman who might be impressed by the strong man comes to her
rescue, totally acceptable as a flashy-trashy candidate for Super Bowl halftime
show. If this sometimes corny romance works “Beyond the Lights,” it’s because
the lights are so perfectly pointed at her.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual content including suggestive gestures, partial
nudity, language and thematic elements
Cast: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nate Parker, Minnie Driver,
Credits: Written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood. A Relativity release.
Running time: 1:56