We live in a world where celebrities are at our fingertips at all times. We can, if we wanted to, know where they ate for lunch, what they had, what they threw away, what books they’re reading, what brand of dog food they feed the pooch that sleeps in their purses. The list goes on and on. We have people who are paid to exploit all of their secrets, all of their movements. We don’t even care what our own kids eat for lunch, leaving the school cafeteria to give them whatever they deem fit, but if we can find out what flavor fruit smoothie Katy Perry likes to cleanse herself with, then we’re on it. We hear celebrities talk and balk about how this pressure and this insistent exploitation of their basic human right for privacy is draining, emotionally, and we even see the aftermath in some celebrities, with rehab trips, psychological breakdowns and even early death. It’s a really serious issue, but one that will never go away because greed runs this country, and a celebrity is always worth something, dead or alive.
‘Beyond the Lights’ tries to look at the other side of this obsession, developing a story that centers on a rising star who isn’t obsessed with the fame or the money or the fans but simply wants out. She’s already over it, before it even begun.
Problem is, no one else is.
‘Beyond the Lights’ tells the story of young Noni, a talented young woman who is on the verge of a major breakout. After an introduction scene that sets up the family dynamics (Noni is talented from birth, her mother has nothing and will accept nothing but the best), we are thrust into a world where Noni is being exploited for all of her talents; her voice and her body. At an awards show she is lead around by her musical collaborator and studio assigned boyfriend, Kid Culprit, while their music video (which degrades her in many ways) plays on large screens for the audience. The cheers from her peers echo in her head as she wins an award and pretty much cements the sales for her upcoming album. The sky is the limit for her, but so is all the pressure, and as she escapes to her hotel room, begging not to be disturbed, she attempts to kill herself. Thankfully, there was a security guard, Kaz, there to save her.
What happens next is director/screenwriter Gina Prince-Bythewood’s way of tackling these themes but getting a tad too caught up in the Hollywood tropes to allow herself to really flesh these out solidly. The main story, of Noni’s emotional collapse, is so rich with meaning and poignancy that it didn’t need the whole ‘Romeo + Juliett’ aspect thrown in to complicate matters. The relationship between Noni and her mother (a brilliant Minnie Driver) and her faux boyfriend and her studio and the battle within herself were more than enough, but the need to make this feel like your average ‘chick flick’ gave me pause in moments. It held back the development of some of the key issues because it needed to follow these two individuals, and while Kaz’s character has his own set of baggage and internalized struggles, he’s never as interesting or as pertinent to the real story as Gina wants us to think he is.
But ‘Beyond the Lights’ does offer us some really well tuned hints at the life a not so luxurious pop-star, and it uses its star (breakout Gugu Mbatha-Raw) in ways that no other film I’ve seen this year uses its star. With subtle looks, facial shifts, body language and tone of voice, Gugu embodies a woman suffocating a world where no one can hear her, no one can see her. All they see, all they hear, is what she can offer them. From her mother, who has allowed her determination to make a better life for her and her daughter cloud her better judgment, to the masses of fans who only want a piece of who Noni is, Mbatha-Raw sells every ounce of this lost woman’s soul. It is in this soulful and complex performance that ‘Beyond the Lights’ finds its voice.
Don’t let my criticism fool you, for ‘Beyond the Lights’ is not your average chick flick. In fact, it’s not a chick flick at all. There is real bite and real authenticity found in these bones, I just wish that those bones held a little more meat in some key areas, and that the tendency to fall into clichéd depictions of hope (like, that ending was just awful) had escaped an otherwise beautiful and enriched look at the tragedy that is fame.
This gets a pretty solid B+ from me. I really wish that Gugu Mbatha-Raw had a shot at an Oscar nom, or even the WIN for this, since it's the most layered and brilliantly delivered performance I've seen this year. In her own words, she's a masterpiece.