Beyond the Lights (2014)
116 min., rated PG-13.
At first glance, "Beyond the Lights" seems like it would only pass as a glorified Lifetime movie lucky enough to receive a theatrical release, but it's a lot smarter, more dignified and more understated than that. Written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (2008's "The Secret Life of Bees" and 2000's "Love & Basketball"), this romantic backstage-drama fine-tunes and breathes fresh life into shopworn clichés in this time of social media with a realistic insider-look at fame and a believable romantic angle that actually sizzles. "Beyond the Lights" has its melodramatic tendencies (for one, there's a mother-to-daughter slap), though there is thankfully no obsessive-fan thriller element like in the 1992 Whitney Houston-Kevin Costner vehicle "The Bodyguard." It also has a few endings too many, and the official one is conventional but satisfying. The whole package ends up being both sexy and affecting, courtesy of enormously appealing and charismatic lead stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker.
In South London, 1998, ten-year-old Noni (India Jean-Jacques) competed in a talent competition with a song, only to get a trophy for being a runner-up. Her single stage mother, Macy Jean (Minnie Driver), dragged her off the stage, and in the parking lot, she forced her daughter to leave the trophy, asking her, "Do you wanna be a runner-up, or do you wanna be a winner?" All grown up, Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is now a hot and racy Rihanna-esque R&B star whose album with white rapper Kid Culprit (Richard Colson Baker, better known as real-life rapper Machine Gun Kelly) is about to win a Billboard award in L.A. Tired of having her life and career in her record label and mother's hands, she is at a low point, crying for help from her own success. Perched on a hotel balcony in Beverly Hills, Noni is almost talked out of jumping by officer Kaz Nicol (Nate Parker), a security detail in charge. He calmly says, "I see you," before grabbing her hand. Being in the spotlight, where one wrong move or mistake can tarnish careers, Noni still hopes to be a "positive role model." Kaz is expected to go along with calling Noni's attempted suicide an accident from too much partying with a pay-off of $10,000. Though he's not pleased with lying for the cameras, Kaz keeps getting drawn back to Noni, who might also genuinely be into her law-enforcement hero.
Full of swoon-worthy chemistry, the stunning Gugu Mbatha-Raw (2014's "Belle") and attractive Nate Parker are an ideal match. They're lovely together, and the camera loves them both so much and can't fake the organic heat between them. When the couple gets away to Mexico and hides out in a resort with karaoke, there is a special moment that plays to both of the stars' strengths; Parker isn't afraid to shed his swagger with a cringe-inducing solo that cheerfully earns boos, and then Mbatha-Raw, having taken her purple weave out, gets up to sing an emotionally raw a cappella version of Nina Simone's "Blackbird," the first song she ever sang at the talent show in the film's opener. The script has less time for supporting players, but Minnie Driver brings a little dimension to a stereotypical role as Macy Jean, Noni's controlling stage mother and manager. Her love and protection for her daughter has nearly vanished, as promoting Noni has consumed her life. First seen as a desperate single mum, she now okays her daughter to sex it up for a full-body photo shoot. Danny Glover has less to do as Kaz's father, also the LAPD captain, except for trying to talk sense into his son.
"I feel like I'm suffocating in the middle of the street, and no one can see me dying," Noni weepingly cries after damaging glass-framed posters of her as a centerfold in her home. The glamour and being under a microscope by the press is making Noni crack. She knows how to play her part, smiling for the cameras at press conferences, but Kaz allows Noni to see the goodness in herself and find her own voice. Kaz, himself, is willing to defend the pop star, even if that means putting his political aspirations as a political science major on the back burner. Writer-director Gina-Prince Bythewood is more interested in Noni and Kaz's backgrounds and hearing what they have to say than merely using their relationship as a fluffy product of a fantasy. Their getting-to-know-you interactions allow "Beyond the Lights" to have more honesty and layers than one might expect.