Beyond the Lights (2014)
Starring- Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nate Parker, Minnie Driver, Richard Colson Baker, Danny Glover
Director- Gina Prince-Bythewood
PG-13- sexual content including suggestive gestures, partial nudity, language and thematic elements
Beyond the Lights is another one of those movies that would be pretty mediocre if not for the one thing that it does really, really well.
When we first meet Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), she’s a little girl happily accepting a trophy for second place in a local talent competition. When she leaves the stage, her overbearing mother, Macy Jean (Minnie Driver), forces her to throw it out — “Do you want to be first runner up, or do you want to be a winner?”
The next time we see Noni, it’s been over a decade, and she’s one of the biggest pop stars in the world, a multi-award winner before her first album — expected to be one of the all-time largest debuts for a female soloist — has even dropped.
And she’s standing in the edge of her hotel balcony, thinking hard about jumping.
Kaz (Nate Parker), a police officer hired to provide security for the evening, shows up just in time to catch her. A media circus subsequently descends upon both of them; Noni tries to spin it to maintain her image, and Kaz tries to use it to nurture his political ambitions. In between, the two come to care for one another and question their place in the public eye.
I can’t really say that anything is significantly wrong with Beyond the Lights. It’s more that everything about it is really okay. It’s light, inspiring drama with just a touch more edge than usual. It’s the sort of movie where true love solves everything, where each character has exactly one problem to resolve and can expect the rest of his or her life to go swimmingly once that’s taken care of. The romance at its heart is pretty predictable, particularly within this context — its ups and downs make for great drama but don’t feel too honest. At a certain point, it seems as though every scene between the two of them is going to begin great then crumble after one of them says or does something wrong. There will be soul-searching; they’ll make up. Wash, rinse, repeat. It’s not bad; it’s not good. It’s movie drama. You’ve seen it.
If there’s anything here that’s actually an explicit problem for the film, it’s that the chemistry between Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker is a bit on the sleepy side and never really takes off the way the film needs it do. The film smartly draws parallels between them that at least offer an intellectual justification of their relationship — both of them either have or are pursuing careers in the public eye, are managing an image that’s been cultivated for them, and are struggling with questions of who they really are and who they really want to be. It’s easy enough to assume that this relationship works and appeals to both of them because they truly are the only people who stand a chance at understanding one another. That’s just not something that always comes across on-screen. The relationship between these characters isn’t bad, necessarily; it almost gets the job done. It’s just a little dry, a little wooden, something that has touches of life here and there but is never lifelike.
Admittedly, I appear to be in the minority on this — a lot of critics, including one or two of my favorites, have called this one of the best movies of the year. But if this romance and this story were all Beyond the Lights had to offer, I’m not sure I’d be working on a positive write-up right now.
And then there’s that one thing that it does really well. And that really raised its profile for me. I think what Beyond the Lights has to say about celebrity is really interesting, deftly handled, and quite needed right now.
It does that by allowing us to see Noni in two different lights — through the media, which focuses on the drug-fueled escapades, on the public meltdowns, on the sex appeal; and in her private life, in the moments between the major events that define how everyone else sees her. Essentially, the film takes the stereotypical modern pop star — the drugged-up, scarcely dressed, disconnected, pretentious, egotistical nutcase — and asks its audience to see that person in another light. Removing none of those negative characteristics, it finds the narrative in between and tells us what really shouldn’t be novel: “Hey, these are human beings.” And then, it goes a step farther: “Also, it might’ve been you who did this to them.”
With Noni, it becomes clear that all the nonsense she gets up to is an escalating series of cries for help, trying to get someone, anyone to see her as an actual person and allow her to be that for once.
“It’s like I’m standing in the street, suffocating, and no one can see me,” she says.
It’s about not only the cult of celebrity but the strange sense of ownership society has over people who have come to be in the public eye. “Here we are now, entertain us.” It’s about the way we see their private affairs as something to which we’re entitled, that we not only need to witness but have explained to us. It’s about the way people in that position are left with no other choice than to play to that image somehow, to find some means of making it an advantage. It’s about how painful it is to deny oneself for that long and to put on a face about how it really is. And when it reaches its most hurtful point, when you finally lash out or do something stupid, crying for help or trying to make the pain go away, just for a second, it’s interpreted as part of a relentless, negative narrative people are building around your life for their own entertainment. It’s the sort of thing that’s certainly not true about everyone but is just as certainly true about someone. The film is as much about the paparazzi, the gossip magazines, and the news media as it is about Noni finding a way to love herself again — and its perspective is refreshingly non-positive and quite intelligent in the way it indicts its own audience. It encourages a sort of voyeurism around Noni’s life and then undercuts it with conscience — forcing viewers to recognize that real life is constantly offering us the former without the latter, that we see only the drama and don’t recognize the humanity. It’s intelligent stuff and really ought to be in a much better film.
This one is mostly all right. There are no significant missteps. There are also few standout qualities. It’s an easy, simplistic drama. But it also happens to have a thematic throughline that’s surprisingly intelligent, effective, and challenging — enough so that I’m thrilled they managed to sneak it into something this populist. On that level, it’s leaps and bounds above its competition.