VOD film review: Beyond The Lights
Body & soul10
Simon Kinnear | On 27, Jun 2015
Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Cast: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nate Parker, Minnie Driver
Watch Beyond the Lights online in the UK: Amazon Prime / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / iTunes / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play
Beyond The Lights was, according to Metacritic, one of the best reviewed films of 2014. It is a superb showcase for the abilities of rising Brit star Gugu Mbatha-Raw. It shares its setting and themes with current TV hit Empire. It is a recent Oscar nominee. Meanwhile, the big talk in movie circles revolves around the sheer number of films released in cinemas every weekend; pretty much everything gets a big-screen release nowadays, no matter how mediocre.
So why isn’t Beyond The Lights getting a cinema release? The highest-profile snub in years, it’s easy to lay the blame at timid distributors, who reckon a romantic drama between two black characters won’t do big business. It certainly isn’t the fault of the film, which manages to be both a deeply likeable crowd-pleaser and a richly textured, thematically diverse study of (among other things) stardom, pushy parents, female self-worth and ethnic identity.
Sure, this isn’t blockbuster material. It is, intentionally, a minor-key cover version of major label themes, eschewing the histrionics of Empire for a sober look at the pressures facing talented but easily manipulated youngsters. As the title suggests, writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood refuses to be dazzled by the bright lights. Does that make it a tough sell? Well, cinema’s loss is VOD’s gain and this deserves to be one of the straight-to-stream hits that defines the medium’s potential.
It begins in London 1998: Jamiroquai on the soundtrack, talk of Princess Di’s death on the radio and Driver as Macy, a pushy mum taking her young daughter, Noni, to a talent show. Noni comes second; Macy is outraged. Fast-forward to now: Noni (now played by Mbatha-Raw) is a scantily-clad, gyrating hip-hop star – but at her cost of her integrity and, perhaps, her sanity.
Attempting suicide, she’s saved by the cop assigned to guard her hotel room, Kaz (Parker). As the PR machine spins this as the heroic rescue of a damsel in distress, Kaz and Noni fall for each other, much to the chagrin not only of Macy and Noni’s label, but also Kaz’s father (Danny Glover), who is grooming his son for stardom as a politician.
The rest of the plot you can guess, but Prince-Bythewood and her excellent leads take the familiarity of the tale as given in order to concentrate on locating something solid beneath the fairytale, turning the characters’ habitual, by-rote cry of “for real” into an agonised plea to be heard. The film captures the mental exhaustion of fixed smiles, wardrobe fittings and trying to please everybody but yourself, giving the couple’s escape into each other’s company an authentically languid, world-on-hold sensation.
It might be called Beyond The Plot Beats. While there are set-pieces – notably an appalling stage performance that crystallises the quasi-pornographic world that Noni inhabits – much of the film rests with Mbatha-Raw and Parker, who have such real chemistry that a delightful, seemingly improvised beach-side breakfast chat feels thrillingly alive. It is a music industry film shorn of bling; indeed, the decluttering of Noni’s image in favour of something more natural and truer to her roots forms the basis of the story’s arc.
Acting is superb all round. As Macy, a steely, career-best Driver fulfils her surname by pushing Noni too hard, but the actress steps back from harridan stereotypes because Macy has obvious maternal affection beneath the brittle exterior; she is just helplessly committed to these tactics because she knows no better. Parker, meanwhile, gets a gig that offers little scope for subtlety – Kaz is a figure of integrity from the off – but the actor underplays to suggest a real life-choice dilemma in pursuing Noni.
But there’s no doubting the star here, and this is compelling proof of how far Mbatha-Raw has come since her breakthrough as Martha Jones’ sister in Doctor Who. She looks the part as a hot singer, but captures the silent scream of panic in those sexualised dance routines; even the romance takes time to fly, thanks to Noni’s ingrained guardedness. By the time she sings an impassioned version of Nina Simone’s Blackbird – every emotion registering in face and voice, the real woman emerging from the fake image – you’ll realise how insane it is that this performance, one of the best by a British actress in recent years, won’t make it into cinemas. For real.
Beyond the Lights is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.