Honestly – everyone in the Academy should be FLOGGED for not having nominated Gugu Mbatha-Raw for her towering performance in Beyond the Lights a few years ago. Seriously – it’s time to dismantle the Academy. They’ve all had their chance to be relevant and they’ve consistently blown it year after year. Despite some conventional beats and a few predictable moments, I absolutely loved this film overall, I cried nearly half-a-dozen times, and it’s more conclusive proof that Mbatha-Raw is not of this planet – her supernatural beauty combined with pure, raw acting talent is a combination that is impossible to resist. And, just as a bonus, she’s an amazing singer, and she grabs you from the first frames (which is nearly impossible as the film opens with an extra sultry music video that gets the pulse racing) and never lets go, delivering more than one powerful ballad, and then late in the game, with her emotional guard down, does a solo number, sans instruments, in one take(!), that’s positively spellbinding to behold. I’m smitten, I’m anxious to see what she does next, and I’m starting to think that after her stellar work in Belle, and how she changed her look so often in Beyond the Lights, that she might have the same chameleonic quality that some of the best actors and actresses possess, instantly making her a must-follow talent for me as a viewer.
Beyond the Lights was written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (who previously crafted the excellent Love & Basketball), and it tells the story of Noni (Mbatha-Raw), a Rhianna-esque pop star making the transition from back-up star on another artist’s album to a full-fledged music icon, and all of the rocky roads that lead her to stardom. Her domineering mother, Macy (an excellent Minnie Driver who was also robbed of Oscar consideration), wants nothing more than for her daughter to explode on the scene, constantly pushing Noni to the extreme, never truly thinking about the consequences. One night, after the Billboard Music Awards, Noni attempts suicide by jumping out of her hotel room window, but she’s heroically saved by a dashing, idealistic cop named Kaz (the extra-buff and appealing Nate Parker, who memorably co-starred with Richard Gere in Arbitrage) who has political aspirations and a wise father (Danny Glover, slyly cast as a police captain) who is always looking out for his son. Prince-Bythewood sort of structures Beyond the Lights as a new-fangled Notting Hill, in that the film is about a mega-star finding romance with a “regular person,” but she throws twists into the formula to keep things fresh and interesting. And while she dabbles in melodrama maybe a bit too often, there’s a level of sincerity and an emotional openness that I admired about this film; as previously mentioned, my eyes enjoyed tearing up with this one. When a movie works it works and this one does for the full two hour run time. Will Noni and Kaz make it as a couple? Will Noni be able to escape her demons? Will Kaz be able to handle his new found fame as the boyfriend of a popular musician?
Beyond the Lights is a sexy movie, with glitzy, mobile, and stylish photography all over the place, as cinematographer Tami Reiker basically made camera-love to Mbatha-Raw and Parker, showcasing his impeccable physique on more than one occasion, and the extra-hot Mbatha-Raw in a variety of scantily clad dresses and outfits that will raise the most jaded of eye-brows (Sandra Hernandez’s costume design is spot-on). You believe that these two gorgeous people could be a couple, and they share an instant, palpable chemistry that’s totally required for the genre. But let’s be honest, capturing the two of them in a constant state of semi undress or rhythmic action goes a long way in keeping the film humming along at a fast pace. And without spoiling it entirely, when their first love scene occurs, the way that Prince-Bythewood integrates it into the story goes a long way in making it one of the best love scenes in recent memory. It’s not about the nudity or the graphic nature, but more about the heart behind the act, and how one character is looking out for the other. And I also really liked how the film tackled the notion that the overly sexualized female is a bad thing for women of all ages, and how Driver’s character never thought twice about exploiting her daughter in an effort to advance her career. It’s a sad fact in that industry and the way Prince-Bythewood blends social commentary with romantic fairy tale is deft and assured. And what’s a music-based movie without catchy songs? On this level the film also succeeds, and I was further blown away to learn that Mbatha-Raw sang on more than one occasion. Beyond the Lights is a massively enjoyable movie and one that holds up on repeated viewings.