There are two films bursting to break out of Beyond the Lights, a soapy showbiz drama from Love & Basketball director Gina Prince-Bythewood. One of them is a sharply observed examination of sexualized female identity in popular music and how its effects are not just cultural, but can inflict damage on the woman baring herself to the masses. The other is romantic formula, about a young, miserable, vulnerable woman falling hopelessly in love with a chiseled, muscular, protective man. The cultural context of the former gives a bit of cutting commentary, but it cannot offset the schmaltzy dialogue and dullness of the latter romance. What could have been a revealing, incisive look at the price of fame turns into a story filled with longing stares, beautifully toned skin and groan-worthy dialogue.
Beyond the Lights begins by juxtaposing two different award ceremonies. The first is a youth talent show in South London. An awkward, frizzy-haired young girl named Noni (India Jean-Jacques) stands stiffly onstage for a moving rendition of Nina Simone’s “Blackbird.” She doesn’t quite have the stage presence, but her stirring voice gets a rapturous applause. Upon placing as the runner-up, Noni’s mom Macy Jean (Minnie Driver, trying to rise above the material) snatches her daughter from the stage and tells Noni to toss the trophy away.
From there, Prince-Bythewood cuts to around 15 years later, to a raunchy music video with inane lyrics and barely dressed girls submitting to acts akin to prostitution. (The song is titled “Masterpiece,” although given the partial nudity, thrusting and NSFW poses, “Masturbate” would have been a more appropriate title.) The starlet with the purple weave, the guest chorus and the auto-tuned voice is Noni, who one scene later, walks off with her first Billboard award for that single. Macy Jean, standing eagerly on the side, sees the trophy as an idol reflective of her daughter’s ascent into the music business. Noni, however, sees it as a prize of shame and feels suffocated by the industry’s standards.
Miserable and intoxicated, Noni skirts death by slipping off her hotel room balcony. LAPD cop Kaz (Nate Parker) is next to Noni as she tempts herself to jump. He catches her in the nick of time before pulling the new award-winner to safety. From there, Prince-Bythewood’s screenplay keeps the mélange of media misrepresentation in the background to emphasize the quickly growing relationship between Noni and her stoic savior. Macy Jean believes that her tumble off the balcony was an accident and works overtime to convince Noni’s label not to postpone the release of her forthcoming solo album. Noni, however, is a contradiction: bubbly and charming in front of the cameras, wounded and vulnerable on her own.
She opens up to Kaz about the pressures of fame and her need to feel like a regular girl again. They munch on fried chicken, listen to old records and eventually find themselves entangled in their own kind of love song. That song, however, is a popular one that relies on rote story developments and cheesy declarations of love. The further Beyond the Lights slips into forgettable formula, as Kaz tries to aide Noni to open herself up to new artistic possibilities, the more it moves away from exploring the character’s fraught psyche.
In the film’s best sequence, Noni takes the stage at an awards show, where she plans to debut her new single. She disobeys the original concept to remove her white jacket and reveal her lingerie in an effort to avoid the promiscuous labels she fears are staining her versatility as an artist. As Gugu Mbatha-Raw, assured yet vulnerable in the role, dances like a pro on stage as Noni, we see her struggle not to submit to what the audience wants. If more of Beyond the Lights dealt head-on with the issues surrounding the prostituted elements of show business, then Prince-Bythewood would have made something compelling.
As it stands, the film is mostly corny, with its sunny locales, blemish-free actors and trite dialogue. “We can still have happy ever after,” Kaz tells Noni during a beach-set montage that feels like a fantasy sequence but isn’t one. It is clumsy exchanges like these that snap us out of the more provocative industry landscape and into the realm of soapy wish fulfillment. (Even the film’s poster, a beach shot of Noni gazing at her shirtless beau, resembles a book cover of a cheap romance novel.) Kaz is a handsome young man who feels too flawless to deal with the needs of a troubled pop star. At home, he has magnets of mantras on his fridge and books about leadership around his house. A subplot involving his police chief father, Nicol (Danny Glover), hoping that Kaz can use his fame to get his foot into a political race, seems forcefully tacked on, in order to have the character share common ground with Noni.
It’s a shame that the material is so rudimentary and the romance so tame between the two characters, since the actors are terrific. Mbatha-Raw, who gave a fierce touch in Belle earlier this year, owns the screen, especially when the actor gets the rare chance to confront her character’s fraught mental state. When Noni, incognito without her colored hair extensions and make-up, takes the stage at a resort to belt out an old favorite and finds her voice, the actor shows an agony and intensity that is sadly missing from much of the rest of Beyond the Lights. Parker is fine, although one suspects he got the job due to his well-sculptured physique rather than his acting range – a bit contemptible in a film that tries to show how little image matters.
“Congratulations, you’re a bloody cliché,” Macy Jean screams at Noni after the pop star throws a tantrum. While watching the derivative Beyond the Lights, which doesn’t offer much new to say about the pressure and perils of fame, you may be tempted to yell the same thing at the screen.
Beyond the Lights is content to be a derivative PG-13 romance instead of shining a light into incisive issues of female identity and sexuality in show business.