Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Noni Jean
Nate Parker as Kaz
Minnie Driver as Macy Jean
Richard Colson Baker as Kid Culprit
Danny Glover as Captain Nicol
Darryl Stephens as Quentin
Elaine Tan as April
Isaac Keys as Jonas
Tyler Christopher as Liam King
Benito Martinez as Jesse Soria
Aisha Hinds as J Stanley
India Jean-Jacques as Noni (age 10)
Deidrie Henry as Felicia
Directed by Gina Prince-Blythewood
Pop star Noni Jean (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) has achieved huge amounts of fame even before the release of her first album, but she’s unhappy with her life and the lack of control she has in her career. A drunken suicide attempt is prevented by L.A. policeman Kaz (Nate Parker) and the two of them bond, but as their relationship blooms into a romance, Kaz realizes that Noni’s life in the spotlight is very different from his own working class lifestyle.
Movies set in the world of the music business tend to raise red flags with me, maybe because I spent nearly 20 years working in the music business and I know exactly how hard it is for female recording artists to make it on their own terms in a business that pressures them with the myth that sex equals sales. “Love and Basketball” writer/director Gina Prince-Blythewood has enough empathy to create a fairy tale romance within that world that’s far less shallow and superficial than it might have been in the hands of a male filmmaker, but it’s far from perfect.
We first meet Noni Jean as a young girl in Brixton, being entered into a talent contest by her mother (Minnie Driver) where she sings Nina Simone’s “Blackbird,” but only winning second place. Cut forward sixteen years and that little girl has grown up and is almost unrecognizable as we watch her new underdressed and oversexed incarnation, strutting her stuff in a music video for a white rapper named Kid Culprit. Her mother is still pushing Noni to bigger fame and fortune, but she clearly isn’t happy and after drinking a bit too much, she sits on the railing of her hotel balcony, thinking about jumping. Coming to her rescue is Nate Parker’s Kaz, a beat cop who is filling in on security detail for Noni. While the tabloids strive to learn the dirty truth behind her rescue, the public eats up the growing romance between them as she brings Kaz to events and parades him before the camera.
There really wasn’t much that interested me in the first half of this movie, since a lot of it caters to those who read tabloids and hang onto everything “celebrities” do on a daily basis. Noni’s fame and lifestyle is the kind of thing most people dream of having, but the very idea of having a working class “every man” enter the life of this damaged pop star and saving her is somewhat forced and feels somewhat sexist especially coming from a woman filmmaker.
Despite that quibble, Prince-Blythewood proves herself more than capable of taking what is a fairly simple and standard romantic premise and give it just enough weight and emotion to make it better than it could have been. Part of that is finding just the right actors to help her pull that off. I was already impressed by British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw when I saw her in the period drama “Belle” earlier this year, but with Noni Jean, she creates a rich character that goes through the type of transformation that makes you wonder which side of Noni is closer to the actress’ actual look. Nate Parker works as a rugged romantic lead while keeping the drama grounded.
It’s only when Kaz drags Noni to Mexico for a getaway where she can go into hiding and escape all the troubles she’s been having that it gets easier to start warming up to their romance, as it begins to feel more feasible. Eventually, Noni is discovered and has to return to Hollywood to deal with the repercussions of her actions. During her break, she’s decided to write her own song (kind of an odd sequel-of-sorts to “Blackbird”) and wants to try to get it on her album, which allows her to learn where her mother’s allegiances lie. That leads to one of the film’s more interesting takeaways that maybe Noni was never meant to represent a Rihanna-like pop singer, but maybe someone more like Alicia Keys, a singer-songwriter who has fought hard to control her own career decisions (and who also happens to have starred in Prince-Blythewood’s previous film).
The Bottom Line:
There are a few silly, sappy moments in “Beyond the Lights,” as one might expect in a movie about a hard-to-believe fairy tale romance, but Prince-Blythewood’s attempt to create authenticity in a story set within the music business is elevated by having solid actors like Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker to bolster it.