Beyond the Lights Review: The Many Perils of Superstardom

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Gina Prince-Bythewood’s exposé on the loneliness of celebrity doesn’t bring anything new to the table, but its intimate direction and captivating performances make for an incredibly endearing film.

Glimpse through the recent postings on almost any entertainment website and you’re likely to find a thinkpiece on the sexualization of female pop stars. Some will say it’s empowering, allowing these women to own their bodies and play by the same rules as the men. Others will claim these ladies are victims of an industry that exploits their naiveté in order to make a buck.

It’s certainly interesting to think about. Stars like Miley Cyrus and Rihanna give off a devil-may-care attitude that suggests they’re the ones in control. Conversely, a tight-lipped performer such as Britney Spears seems to only speak through her management. Still, I think the only ones who really know the truth are the singers themselves, and the team of people they’re surrounded by.

Beyond the Lights, which was written and directed by Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball), aims to look past the lens of the paparazzi cameras and show us the private life of someone who’s always in the public eye.

We follow the story of Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) as she goes from being a struggling, but talented child of a single mother (Minnie Driver) to a purple-weaved, come-hither pop princess with a “momager.” One of the best things the film does is portray the harsh reality of the pre-packaged performances we see on TV. Noni claims that performing gives her a high “better than any drug,” and yet several of her moments onstage—be it an award show, press conference, or nightclub appearance—are filmed with such apathetic starkness that you get the sense they’re more burdening than fulfilling.  Prince-Bythewood gets her camera up close to her subjects’ faces, giving the film an insider’s feel.

Noni may seem content in her burgeoning A-list status on the outside, but it soon becomes clear how much she’s secretly hurting. After winning a Billboard Award with her rapper boyfriend Kid Culprit (Richard Colson Baker aka Machine Gun Kelly), she retreats back to her hotel room and locks the door. Her mother comes in to find her sitting on the ledge of her balcony, poised to push herself off. She almost falls, but is saved by Kaz (Nate Parker), the security guard on duty. “I see you,” he says, and it’s enough of the emotional warmth Noni’s been missing to pull her back up.

At it’s core, Beyond the Lights is a charming love story, but not the one you might expect from the film’s posters and trailer. Yes, Noni and Kaz quickly develop a relationship after her night on the ledge, but their romance is really just a vehicle for Noni to discover the love she has for herself. Amid the harshness of flashbulbs, record label executives, and her domineering mother, she finds a sense of empowerment in the simplicity she shares with Kaz. This allows her to find her own voice.

When it comes to Noni’s body image, the film makes a very clear distinction. In scenes where she’s sexy and flirtatious with Kaz, everything is her choice. When she’s at a photoshoot and is asked to take her top off, it feels anything but safe. In one especially jarring sequence, she performs at the BET Awards and is practically assaulted onstage. Every comment the film makes about the nature of the Hollywood and the music industry has been made a thousand times before, but that doesn’t make the message any less significant. I don’t know if Beyond the Lights will spur any real change, but its authenticity will likely make you think twice the next time you see a pop star on a magazine cover.

Not everything about the film is so engaging, however, and it’s romantic inclinations lend themselves to some cheesiness. Kaz often seems too good to be true and, though I appreciate the attempt to expand on his character, a subplot involving his overbearing father (Danny Glover) and a potential political career feels wholly unnecessary. Much more intriguing is the way Noni’s mother is depicted. A lesser film would’ve painted her merely as a meddling witch, but here we see how her love for her daughter and her cravings for success easily get in the way of each other.

The script features several clichéd bits of dialogue, but they’re elevated by strong performances from the cast. Mbatha-Raw brings an alluring vulnerability to Noni, while Parker projects a strong sense of empathy through Kaz. Together, they display a winning chemistry. Driver, meanwhile, terrifically sells both her character’s venomous determination and her sweet, though often misguided, caring.

Sure, Beyond the Lights is far from groundbreaking, but it’s earnest in its intentions and much more layered than you’d expect. The film wears its heart on its sleeve, and its final moments are sure to leave a smile on your face. Grade: B+

 

By Mike Papirmeister

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