Smart and passionate, this is one of the ultimate Hollywood fantasies: an adult romance performed by gorgeous actors with palpable onscreen chemistry.
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
It is a sign of how broken Hollywood is that the smart, stylish and passionate Beyond the Lights didn’t get the studio support it needed to make the kind of splash it deserved at the U.S. box office last fall. It didn’t open very wide, and it disappeared from screens almost instantly afterward. There is no excuse for this.
This is mainstream filmmaking at its very best. This is a believable romance between adult characters played by gorgeous actors with palpable onscreen chemistry. This is one of the ultimate Hollywood fantasies. This is a movie about the entertainment industry — specifically, pop music — that is full of glitz and glamour for those who love that sort of thing, along with plenty of criticism of the glitz and glamour for those who are suspicious of its superficiality (or maybe it’s just the right balance for those with a love-hate relationship with Big Entertainment). This is a movie perfect for an underserved audience — teen girls and young women — who would have flocked to it had they known it would speak to them about the particular problems of a slightly older fictional peer, an intelligent and talented young woman trying to find her way in a world that doesn’t give her a lot of easy options. And in what should have been a marvelous bonus, Beyond the Lights is also perfect for another underserved U.S. audience: black Americans–
Oh. Was that the “problem”? Did the studio — which is Relativity Media, by the way — simply not know how to market a film with black characters in an entertainment environment in which “black film” has come to mean either “faith-based” or (more frequently) embarrassing modern minstrelry passing for comedy? Did they not know how to market a movie in which black people are just, you know, people, and not caricatures?
More evidence of brokenness: The film doesn’t have a U.K. release date yet, even though it has a specific U.K. interest. Because it’s about singer Noni (the glorious Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Jupiter Ascending, Belle) and her manager-slash-mom, Macy Jean (the brilliant Minnie Driver: I Give It a Year, The Phantom of the Opera), just “a couple of Brixton girls.” (Brixton is a poor area of South London, and both the opening and closing sequences of the film are set in London.) Noni is just breaking out in the pop scene, hard: her first album hasn’t even been released yet and she’s already a phenom thanks to some clever marketing by her label, which hooked her up — in more ways than one — with one of its hugely popular male stars. (Clever marketing! Relativity could have taken a hint from its own movie.)
Writer and director Gina Prince-Bythewood (The Secret Life of Bees) plays fast and loose with the tropes of the rags-to-riches genre, first by all but eliminating the rags-to part. Instead, Noni has to figure out if the sort of fame she is already getting a taste of is what she really wants, which is a tough decision to make when you live in a bubble, as she does. A taste of the outside world comes via Kaz (the wonderful Nate Parker: Non-Stop, Arbitrage), the LAPD cop assigned to guard her hotel room when she’s in town for an awards show. He is not taken in by the glitz and the glamour, and he might just see the real Noni — the one who wants to be Nina Simone, not Beyonce — under all the hair extensions and stilettos.
Prince-Bythewood knows exactly what sort of sandbox she’s playing in — she gets a jokey reference to The Bodyguard out of the way as soon as possible — and she plays very nicely indeed. There is no phony sentiment here, and no simple obstacles for Noni and Kaz to overcome if they are to be together; as with the best romantic stories, it is the hangups and anxieties of two people that keep them apart, not artificial barriers. Macy Jean is no cartoon stage mother but a woman struggling in her own way. (One early scene deals, in a beautifully layered way, with the difficulties she has faced as the white mother of a mixed-race child.) Prince-Bythewood sneaks in disgust with the overt sexualization of women in pop music in a way that doesn’t detract or distract from the melodrama of the romance or of Noni’s self-discovery.
I love this movie so much. It makes me angry that not enough other people had a chance to fall in love with it. But it’s not too late. Buy it! Rent it! Send the message (in case someone is listening) “More like this, please!”