“Beyond the Lights” is a strange beast, a music-industry romance that alternates freely between wisdom and mawkishness, caustic entertainment-biz critique and naive wish fulfillment, heartfelt flourishes and soap-opera shenanigans. Yet writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood (“Love and Basketball”) nonetheless manages to fit all the warring elements of her screenplay into an undeniably entertaining, attractive package, buoyed by a fierce lead performance from Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a burgeoning pop star, and Nate Parker as the cop who saves her from suicide. Given the proper handling, this Nov. 14 Relativity release could well be a sleeper.
Inauspiciously, the film begins with a prologue set in the late 1990s, as frizzy-haired British grade schooler Noni (India Jean-Jacques) delivers a beautiful a cappella rendition of Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” at a talent competition. She winds up in second place, but is ordered to smash the offending trophy by her tart-tongued, council-flat stage mom (Minnie Driver), who asks, “Do you wanna be a runner-up, or do you want to be a winner?” Harsh, maybe, but it sure worked out well for Joe Jackson and Murry Wilson.
Flash forward to the present day, and the adult Noni (Mbatha-Raw) has fashioned herself into a lubricious Rihanna-Katy Perry hybrid, perpetually decked out with stripper gear and a purple weave. Though her debut album has yet to drop, Noni has already racked up several hits alongside her louche rapper boyfriend, Kid Culprit (Colson “Machine Gun Kelly” Baker), and all eyes are on her as she slinks through a hotel to her penthouse suite after an awards show.
Once out of sight, however, she heads straight to the balcony and hoists herself onto the railing. Kaz (Nate Parker), the earnest young LAPD officer assigned to guard her room, swoops into action, using his empathetic instincts and his statuesque musculature to pull her back to safety. The two lock eyes for a moment, but soon the armies of assistants and handlers are on damage control, and Kaz is bribed into towing the official line at a subsequent press conference, insisting that Noni simply slipped.
Both opening sequences are poised on the very precipice of overheated melodrama, but things start to get more interesting in the aftermath. Kaz, who is being groomed to make a run for local political office by his father (Danny Glover), can’t get Noni out of his mind, and keeps seeking excuses to work his way back into her orbit. Noni, whose depression and brush with death are viewed in strictly PR-based terms by those around her (including her mother, now serving as a Machiavellian business manager), sees in Kaz the rare hanger-on who isn’t also on the take.
Ditching Noni’s battalion of escorts, the two abscond for a chaste date of drive-through fried chicken, and romance begins to hesitantly bloom. It’s to Prince-Bythewood’s credit that, for all their obvious chemistry, Kaz and Noni’s relationship always feels both precarious and improbable. Kaz worries what being paparazzi-stalked in the company of a star whose music he accurately describes as “face-down, ass-up” will do to his political endorsements, as well as recognizing his own easy disposability should Noni’s mood take a swing. Noni wonders how such a Boy Scout-like cop could possibly handle the constant ethical hedging of the music biz.
“Beyond the Lights” is enjoyable but frustrating, the type of film that seems to repeatedly win its audience over with one scene only to lose it with the next. For example, the angles from which Prince-Bythewood shoots the lonely Noni in her cavernous, antiseptic mansion speak much louder than, say, a scene of her smashing the framed magazine covers that adorn her walls, yet the director includes a scene of the latter all the same. At times her view of the record industry has an insider’s wry knowingness, and at others she’ll have some oily label head bellow, “If she doesn’t kick ass at the BET Awards, we’ll drop her from the label!” (The less said about the double shot of schmaltz that ends the film, the better.)
Yet when she gets it right, it’s hard to hold the film’s shortcomings against her. Gauzy fairy-tale elements aside, the pic tackles a number of tough issues with rather admirable directness: the default hyper-sexualization of female musicians, the entertainment industry’s disinterest in the mental health of its prime assets as long as the show goes on, and the way a genuine gesture of humanity can be subtly sullied the moment it becomes a media opportunity. A scene in which Noni takes out her hair extensions and scrubs off the anime makeup is unexpectedly empowering, and her seduction of a blindfolded Kaz on a private jet while Beyonce’s “Drunk in Love” plays is both incongruously sweet and about as steamy as the PG-13 rating allows.
Mbatha-Raw, who attracted her first waves of admirers with this spring’s “Belle,” is equally superb here, believably crafting a thoroughly modern, synthetic pop star without losing track of the organic human beneath. Parker makes for a perfectly decent, if at times overly decorative, foil, while Driver brings some humanity to a part that could have easily slipped into outright villainy.
The pic’s tech package is appropriately fizzy and crisp. R&B hitmaker Terius “The-Dream” Nash composes a handful of porno-chic pop songs for Mbatha-Raw to sing; as with the collected works of Spinal Tap, the faux tunes are catchy, and only a degree or two more ridiculous than what’s presently on the radio.