With revered credits such as Love & Basketball and The Secret Life of Bees, Gina Prince-Bythewood has a solid reputation. Now she’s back with Beyond the Lights, her newest undertaking about an up-and-coming pop star that not only puts the director/writer back into the spotlight, but it also provides insight on what it means to be a woman in the music industry.
The story follows Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a British pop singer on the rise to massive stardom. But when things look like they couldn’t be even better, the troubled young woman finds herself on the balcony of her penthouse hotel suite, ready to end it all. Officer Kaz Nicols (Nate Parker, Non-Stop), on duty to guard Noni, realizes this and reaches her at a time when she needs someone to really see her. After the incident, her team quickly goes into PR mode. They think of a “spin” for what happened, forcing Kaz to lie and putting him in an uncomfortable position. But in spite of all this drama, he and Noni are drawn to each another and realize that being together may not be as easy as it seems.
Prince-Bythewood presents her vision in a fresh way that showcases Noni as a hyper-sexualized superstar in the making. She’s a bit of a Rihanna/Nicki Minaj hybrid that wears scarce amounts of clothing and sports different colored hair. Mbatha-Raw, who was riveting in last year’s Belle, brings a vulnerable side to Noni that goes beneath the surface. Meanwhile, Parker gives off the energy of a dashing new young Denzel Washington and proves he can transform for any role he’s given. These two have a palpable chemistry that radiates on screen.
Both Kaz and Noni have parents who are the driving force for their successes. Minnie Driver, as Noni’s mother Macy Jean, nails her performance. She’s a serious “mom-ager” that famously starts the film by saying to a young Noni after she places second at a local talent show: “You wanna be a runner-up? Or you wanna be a winner?” Driver's character borders on villainous, but she brings the right amount of empathy so that audiences can see what drove her to push her daughter.
Kaz’s domineering parent is his father. Played by Danny Glover (Lethal Weapon), Captain Nicols sees his son’s police career as only a temporary stepping-stone for a political future.
With the inclusion of these overbearing parents in the script, Beyond the Lights does have a Romeo & Juliet sort of feel, with the fighting houses and an ill-fated romance. This may seem like an overdone story, but Prince-Bythewood sucks you in by keeping the film modern.
With musical tracks produced by hitmaker Terius “The Dream” Nash, the movie maintains a current, hip vibe throughout. The director continues to keep everything contemporary with cameos from basketball star Amar’e Stoudemire, rapper Big Sean and songstress Estelle. She even casts real-life rapper Machine Gun Kelly as Noni’s on-screen superficial, industry boyfriend, Kid Culprit. Channeling Eminem and Macklemore, he fits perfectly in the film, creating a very real champagne-popping, chain-wearing musician.
Embedded within the strong plot and outstanding actor performances is a subtle message that Prince-Bythewood alludes to throughout the film: Stars can suffer from breakdowns in their prime when there is a disregard for their mental health. The industry manufactures an artist that can make the label money, no matter the cost, which is a problem. Not to mention, the hyper-sexualization of females in this business is highlighted as well. Weaves, nails and barley-there outfits are all just a part of the game.
When the credits roll, we’re reminded that sometimes along with the glitz and glam come heartbreak, love and depression. This is what makes Beyond the Lights a touching and insightful story.
Beyond the Lights releases in theaters Friday, Nov. 14.