As was the case with last week's "Interstellar", Gina Prince-Bythewood's latest film "Beyond the Lights" is one that I'd been anticipating for months. Its main themes (romance and music) seemed like the perfect fit for Prince-Bythewood's filmmaking sensibilities and the rave reception out of its Toronto International Film Festival premiere further cemented my excitement. As expected, I therefore approached the film with high expectations. Now after finally watching the film, I can report that it didn't disappoint, managing to surprise me in more ways than one.
"Beyond the Lights" is the story of Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a pop star at the top of her game. Her success is the result of a master plan devised by her mother (played by Minnie Driver), a single parent determined to give her child a good life after a rough start. The effort has paid off, with Noni winning awards and amassing widespread attention following her latest single and upcoming album. Everything seems perfect on the surface, but underneath it all is a different story. Like many of her peers, she feels the pressure of being treated like a product rather than an individual artist. On the night of her biggest success (winning a Billboard Music Award), she decides to step out on her balcony with every intention of jumping. As she prepares to leap, she's saved at the last minute by a young police officer named Kaz. Subsequently helping her get through this bout of depression, they strike up a strong connection and through his love and support, she begins to find her voice again.
This melodramatic premise - so forcefully conveyed in the trailer - has had some comparing the film to the showbiz romance movies of Hollywood's Golden Era. Indeed, watching Noni's physical transformation reminds you of Judy Garland's character in "A Star is Born". Despite the overall "rise and fall" though, this isn't merely a rehash of classic tropes. One could even say it's an inversion of the traditional story, with the character's low point arriving within the film's opening minutes. Instead, what Prince-Bythewood has done is to take this old-fashioned story and remodel it with a contemporary spin.
Indeed, what the film's marketing fails to convey is the film's elegant direction. Fans would remember Prince-Bythewood's auspicious debut "Love and Basketball", a film that gave her a reputation for excellent music choices that capitalize on the atmosphere. Since then, she clearly hasn't lost this skill, this time curating an urban soundtrack of tracks that speak to Noni's romantic, personal and professional journey. These include a few original songs like "Masterpiece" (a cookie-cutter R&B/Hip-Hop earworm) and the optimistic closer "Grateful".
Apart from the film's beautiful aural quality, Prince-Bythewood also excels in her storytelling approach. There's a subtlety that one wouldn't expect, especially in the film's big moments. While Noni's public persona and performances are fiery and racy - impressively so, I might add - the more private scenes are all stunningly intimate moments between the main characters. By the time the film changes gears for its final act, it's absolutely disarming in the way it puts across its symbolic and literal concepts of finding one's true self.
Of course, the film wouldn't work without the right actress in the lead role. Well, there's surely no doubt that Gugu Mbatha-Raw was the right choice. She has the looks, the attitude, the voice, the dance skills, the attitude and all the sex appeal that goes along with it. More importantly though, she has the acting chops to toss all that aside and convey Noni's grand character arc. It's a truly transformational role that has major physical and emotional demands which she handles like a pro.
Mbatha-Raw's performance also soars due to her great chemistry with Nate Parker. An accomplished actor himself, he acquits himself well in this role as the supportive, positive figure that Noni desperately needs. Unfortunately, the character is the source of one of the film's problems. It's clear that Noni is the film's main attraction, so the script's efforts to develop Kaz as a lead character seemed unneccessary. His subplot about his political aspirations and father-son relationship with Danny Glover's character add little of value of the story. In fact, it often distracts from the film's real focus. Considering how woefully brief the last act is about Noni's renewed artistic integrity - we barely get a sense of Noni's presumed singer-songwriter talents - it makes you wonder what could have been there instead of Kaz's storyline. Perhaps we may have gotten more from the superb Minnie Driver, so effective in her dual role as Noni's strict but empathetic mother/manager.
These hiccups prove to be minor though, as "Beyond the Lights" emerges as finely crafted drama. In just her 3rd feature, Prince-Bythewood has cemented herself as one of cinema's most vital voices, making universal love stories that just happen to have actors of color. Furthermore, it confirms the promise of one our brightest new stars in Gugu Mbatha-Raw. In her two breakout performances this year (this and "Belle"), she has already given us 18th century British aristocracy, ratchet diva and the girl next door. I can't wait to see what she does next.