“Beyond the Lights” is uncomfortable to watch, and not because of the suicide attempt that sets the plot in motion nor is it the juxtaposition of a naive British girl with a dream of being an original pop star and the walking centerfold she becomes. Instead, the beginning is unsettling because the protagonist, Noni Jean (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), is so innocent compared to what she will later become.
Noni is discovered as she is about to commit suicide by her overbearing manager and mother Macy (Minnie Driver) and saved by Kaz (Nate Parker), the cop guarding her room. He seems like the only one who can hear her cry for help, but is hesitant to step into the spotlight as Noni’s hero-turned-lover. Kaz and his father, Captain Nicol (Danny Glover), seem more focused on Kaz’s political ambitions, and a scandalous, possibly suicidal artist would not make a great First Lady. While Noni is smitten with Kaz, she has her career to worry about, which includes keeping up appearances with her rapper boyfriend Kid Culprit (Machine Gun Kelly) and trying to convince people she is not suicidal — something the public will be reminded of any time she steps out with Kaz.
With this much resonance in what amounts to a music video and an acceptance speech, the prologue allows the audience to pick up on the pain young Noni feels being a puppet of the music industry. It is no wonder the director Gina Prince-Bythewood (“Love and Basketball”) fought hard to cast Mbatha-Raw in the film, even backing out of a deal with Sony over it. Mbatha-Raw’s portrayal of Noni is heart-shattering.
“Beyond the Lights” brings nothing new to cinema, but one way it succeeds is by making love look a lot sexier than lust. Noni, in the beginning, has the body of Rihanna, the face of Beyoncé and the hair of Katy Perry, which adds up to a human Barbie doll made to be toyed with. It is when she dresses down and Noni and Kaz open up to each other that the romance of the movie is genuinely felt. Noni is treated as a three-dimensional person rather than the typical melodrama heroine.
Noni and Kaz make an ideal movie couple — it is difficult to say that of Noni and Kid Culprit. Mbatha-Raw, being the wonderful actress she is, outshines Machine Gun Kelly when they share screen time. He does not seem confident enough as an actor to really sell that he has power over Noni. He does, however, make a good villain when Noni finally drops him.
Ultimately the plot of “Beyond the Lights” is cliché, but as a commentary on how we objectify celebrities and lose control of ourselves in pleasing others, it is genuine and original. It will be hard to leave the theater nonplussed with Mbatha-Raw. In the end, the story is forgettable, but Mbatha-Raw certainly is not.
Actress saves ‘Beyond the Lights’
A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, Nov. 13 print edition. Email Marcus Jones at [email protected]