Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Beyond the Lights takes a biting look at women within the music industry, crafting a story about a girl who must sell away her talents in exchange for making it in show business. The film opens in England in the late 1980s with a struggling mother looking for a proper place to get her daughter, Noni, a haircut. She’s going to be in the talent show at her school the next day and she simply has no idea what to do with all of that craziness happening on her child’s head. The next day, Noni performs a beautiful rendition of “Blackbird” in front of the gathered crowd, who are impressed, but the judges give the award to the prettier (and whiter) girl while awarding Noni second place. Her mother tells her to destroy the trophy and never accept defeat; second place isn’t good enough and shouldn’t be, and the judges made a mistake not giving her first place. It’s a harsh message, but one that underlies a strong current in the film: that of a controlling mother who pushes her daughter to extremes to be successful.
The story makes a drastic, unsettling cut to current day, where Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, best known from her tremendous work in this year’s Belle) is dancing in scantily clad clothing in a music video where she sings about sex. She has a wig that makes her seem even more seductive, and she’s accepting an award for her collaboration with recording partner/forced boyfriend, Kid Culprit (Richard Colson Baker). Her life would seem great if we didn’t realize that her talents were being subdued. Her mother (Minnie Driver) still acts as her agent and encourages her to continue this sell-out of a career; her solo album will come around in due time when she gets the proper exposure. Noni cannot stand living like this any longer, though, and on the atypical night that she decides to drink champagne, she attempts to kill herself by jumping off the ledge of her hotel balcony. A police officer, Kaz (Nate Parker), enters her room when she doesn’t respond and sees her sitting there. He saves her life and the story leap frogs from there, using their romance as a spring board for conflict as Kaz pursues a career in politics while Noni attempts to turn her career around.
Few films attempt to tackle the music industry like Beyond the Lights, and that’s a commendable achievement regardless of its sporadic effectiveness. The first half resonates far more strongly than the second, as the story falls into melodramatic, overly simplistic romantic tropes that don’t fully mesh with the inventiveness and thematic consistency on display previously. This is Gina Prince-Bythewood’s first film since 2008’s The Secret Life of Bees, so her return to the camera provides us with some stark social commentary within its mixed-race protagonist and her struggle in a world that associates her work with soulless, auto-tuned garbage. Mbatha-Raw’s performance contains remarkable subtleties that demonstrate her ability to speak past her words. Take, for instance, a moment when she talks with Kid in his trailer and her body language speaks to her uncomfortableness around such an abrasive, idiotic man. Parker’s performance allows him to explore a character trapped in a world obsessed with public image, asking him to behave rationally and without a sense of personal satisfaction. He wants love as much as Noni, and their determination to find their own paths to happiness works on an emotional level. The film’s inconsistent and plays it safe in its conclusion, but it works powerfully when speaking to the testaments of these characters’ struggles.
Grade: ★★★½ (out of 5)