Beyond the Lights

Directed By: Gina Prince-Bythewood

Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Minnie Driver, Nate Parker, Danny Glover, and Machine Gun Kelly

You all are familiar with my less than positive sentiments on the state of the music industry today.  It's all about sex appeal, club playability, and the bottom line.  It's not about the music anymore.  It's not about showmanship.  It's not about the artistry.  Because of this, the industry is a shell of its former self.  While I could elaborate on the void in which the world of music finds itself today, one thing that's often not considered is the generation of artists parading around as executives would have them (my generation unfortunately).  Hollowing out their musical ambitions and setting aside their artistic visions, these musicians often give up that which makes them who they are for the sake of the high life.  There must be a heavy emotional toll for doing this, particularly for female artists who are over-sexualized.  This toll is what director Gina Prince-Bythewood explores in musical romantic drama Beyond the Lights.

Noni Jean (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) has always had a talent for singing, and her mother Macy (Minnie Driver) has seen this as a ticket to a better life for her child.  Pushing her daughter to excel in the arts, Macy can't accept getting second place in a children's talent show for a stirring performance of Nina Simone's "Black Bird" by Noni.  She wants her daughter to win.  Years later, Noni is in fact about to win.  Macy has taken her daughter to the precipice of stardom.  Weeks before the hotly anticipated release of her debut album, Noni finds herself earning her first Billboard award for her collaboration with rapper Kid Culprit (Machine Gun Kelly).  Noni is on top of the world.  At least, that's what everyone thinks until the budding musical sensation tries to end it all by jumping off a balcony.

Kaz Nicol (Nate Parker) is an aspiring politician.  Following in the footsteps of his father Captain David Nicol (Danny Glover), Kaz begins his career in law enforcement.  For Kaz, this career move is a political launching pad where he can earn the public's admiration in every gesture.  It's definitely what he wants for his career, but it's clear his father is living through him vicariously.  As fate would have it, he's serving as Noni's bodyguard the very night she decides to jump off the balcony.  He sees the situation, however, and rescues her.  Though Noni's team packages this as a drunken debacle in which she slipped and fell, Kaz knows the truth.  He sees Noni for who she is, a girl caged in an artistic hell by the powers that be in the music industry.  This truth is the only solid ground on which he can stand, and it serves as the springboard for a surprise romance with Noni.  It does complicate his political aspirations, however.

Marked by raw and tender emotion, Beyond the Lights is a touching tale of two lovers who are dancing monkeys caged by their parents and professions alike.  Though being vastly different in nature, celebrities and politicians face similar entrapments.  They live their lives in a fishbowl for all to see.  Gugu Mbatha-Raw's Noni tries to shut herself out from this life by ending it.  Nate Parker's Kaz tries to do so by becoming an anti-social recluse.  Despite offering a fairly predictable narrative, Gina Prince-Bythewood delivers a highly enjoyable film in Beyond the Lights.  Cleverly capitalizing on this parallel between her two main characters, she lights the spark that fires up this soulful romance full of emotion and a zest for a free life.

The success of this romance hinges on the chemistry of its stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker.  Indeed, they do share an authentic romance on the screen that connects with moviegoers.  For her part as Noni Jean, Mbatha-Raw offers a fragile, wounded flower that's been trapped inside without sunlight by the glamor, the sex, and the pageantry of the high life in Los Angeles.  Following up on her success in Belle earlier this year, it's a pleasure to watch Mbatha-Raw showcase her versatility as an actress.  For his part as Kaz Nicol, Parker delivers one stolid performance.  Though he has an amusing fear of flying, he's a rock grounded in his core principles and beliefs with an unmistakable presence on screen.  Parker delivers yet another solid performance here in Beyond the Lights.

The supporting stars deliver strong performances as well.  For her part as Macy Jean, Minnie Driver gives us one tough mom who loses herself along the way.  Though she starts as a mother desperate to see her daughter have a better life than she, she ends up a monster manager who could care less about her daughter's state of mind as long as the hits keep coming.  For his part as Captain David Nicol, Danny Glover brings a different kind of parent to the film.  He's the loving yet overbearing parent that always has his say in his son's matters.  It's a pleasure to see Glover on screen in this solidly entertaining role.

With strong performances from all involved and smart direction, Beyond the Lights hits the mark.  While the film is a tender romance, there's plenty of social commentary on the sad state of the music industry today.  The film makes it clear that artistry has succumb to profit margins, and I'm in total agreement with Gina Prince-Bythewood.  Beyond the Lights gets a 0.03% rating.  Have some wine coolers with this one.