Christopher M. Enis
“I see you. I see you. I see you.”
Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Beyond The Lights is a cinematic landmine. If you’re not paying attention, you might think you’re witnessing a mashup of Love & Basketball (also from Prince-Bythewood) and The Bodyguard, with a little ‘A Star is Born’ and ‘Gypsy’ thrown in for good measure. It’s nearly (but not quite) in danger of being the kind of movie that executives at Lifetime would sell their souls for (you will never be forgiven for Aaliyah. NEVER).
At the center of this story is Noni Jean (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a British singer on the verge of hitting superstar status. Despite her rapid rise, Jean is ready to end it all (in every possible way). She’s (literally) pulled back from the edge by LAPD officer Kaz (Nate Parker), and it’s love at first sight.
Predictably, Noni and Kaz’ path to romance is riddled with speed bumps, the most formidable being Noni’s Mother & Manager Macy (Minnie Driver). There’s also the matter of Noni’s industry boyfriend, Kaz’ father (played by Danny Glover), and record label executives out for blood (or at least the proverbial pound of flesh).
Beyond The Lights borrows heavily from the Hollywood Starlet Romance playbook. And (as has been illustrated in romance films past) not all of it works. One particular scene, set at an awards show, is just… horrid. Part of the problem is that Prince-Bythewood has so much to say, that the film comes close to information overload. To her credit, she does a good job pulling all the elements together.
The film’s saving grace is the leads, whose on screen chemistry cannot be ignored. Both Parker and Mbathu Raw are excellent. Watching this movie, you really believe that Noni is a star, and that she and Kaz really love each other.
It took Prince-Bythewood five years to get this movie made, mostly because she was unwilling to compromise key elements in the film. That alone gets my respect. Despite its issues, Beyond The Lights is a sweet love story between two leads of color… minus all the racial trappings/political rhetoric traditionally associated with such stories . It’s a rare tale told in Hollywood, so I’m here for it.