Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Love & Basketball did respectable business during its original release, on its way to a substantial following in the nearly fifteen years that followed. Prince-Bythewood has worked steadily since her first feature, alternating film and TV work while trying to get financing for Beyond the Lights. As great as it is to see that she not only pulled it off but is getting a feature written and directed by a black woman into wide release without a pile of thriller clichés or dead bodies, it’s hard to imagine Lights reaching the same levels of appreciation. It goes through the backstage-melodrama paces paces without much style or insight.
The stage in this case is modern pop music, where Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is poised to dominate after “featuring” on a series of hit singles from a white rapper called Kid Culprit (Richard Colson Baker). A prologue introduces Noni as a child performer accompanied by unflinching stage mother Macy Jean (Minnie Driver); the years that pass offscreen have left Noni professionally successful, recently awarded, on the brink of releasing her first album, and suicidal with depression. At her hotel room, she climbs out on a ledge; only the intervention of Kaz (Nate Parker), a cop working security at the hotel, keeps her from letting go.
Kaz and Noni fall into an attraction with a soapy zeal that might throw Nicholas Sparks into a jealous rage. He saves her life and tells her, “I see you.” Actually, Sparks might only feel a brief twinge of jealousy there; he’d get hotter at the scenes where Kaz tags along with Noni as she makes the superstar rounds—mostly to frown in disapproval of the fame machine (he’d lose interest when he realizes that Kaz is not a single parent, does not build boats, and is black). Parker radiates decency, but the movie turns him into a princely square—the kind of guy who doffs his shirt to tend to your wounds (now the jealousy finds Taylor Lautner, who is practicing splits in his well-appointed garage). Mbatha-Raw has showier stuff to play, especially the way Noni transformers herself. At one point, she goes incognito simply by eschewing makeup, extensions, and revealing outfits—and the actress sells the hell out of the conceit that this would leave Noni all but unrecognizable.
The showbiz machine, along with Noni’s unrelenting momager, suffocates her, tamping down any personal impulses in favor of marketability and sexploitation. But the showbiz melodrama kinda does the same thing to the movie; it doesn’t give the characters much breathing room, which is a shame because Mbatha-Raw and Parker strike their biggest sparks in offhand moments. Prince-Bythewood is probably right about the toxicity of the music business, but I’m not sure she’s traced it to its source; she spends a lot of time emphasizing that if word of Noni’s suicide attempt gets out, her career will end instantly, which I never bought for a second (if anything, the movie downplays the way the entertainment industry can turn personal problems into stagy, interactive narratives of their own; assuming a record executive would dismiss Noni’s prospects with a simple “suicide ain’t sexy” almost gives the business too much credit). Though they don’t take up much screentime, talk-show patter and boardroom exchanges alike ring false—scenes of the latter are packed with awkward expository fragments like “even with the decline of album sales…”
The inadequacy of Beyond the Lights as a document of pop-star drama in 2014 would matter less if its biggest moments of romance weren’t so inextricably linked to Noni’s job, and if her job weren’t so nakedly the product of the same ol’ driven-stage-parent song and dance. Kaz rescues her from victimhood at the hands of the white establishment—including Macy, who exploits her biological daughter as a means of escaping a lower-class life—which is interesting culturally but not so much romantically. Why do Kaz and Noni love each other, beyond being attractive and fairly ambitious? His copies of Game Change and an Obama biography are meant as the first glimpses of his political aspirations (and accompanying desire to do good) but they’re just a minor obstacle to his newfound relationship, and a good excuse to see Danny Glover for a few scenes as his father. Noni’s desire to write her own songs barely registers as artistic passion, instead playing more like her making the best of a bad situation.
Prince-Bythewood seems to have some ideas about the way music can transport Noni; in that first scene, she sings Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” at a talent show, and halfway through, the images cut ahead to later in the show as the song continues on the soundtrack. It’s a lovely bit of mis-matching that I wish the technique had popped up again. Without more moments like this, the movie’s portrait of a rough, ruthless industry and a sweetly straight-faced love affair never really sings.