TORONTO – Hollywood has long embraced the trope of the suffering superstar. You know the story, don”t you? A talented but misunderstood singer or actor struggles with the downside of living in the spotlight. Often there is a parent trying to live dreams through his or her child”s adult career. There might even be a hero who will appear from outside the creative world to protect the artist from the perils of fame and fortune. Yes, this is a narrative idea that has been explored countless times in movies and TV shows. It”s also the very simple logline for the new Relativity Media drama “Beyond the Lights.” Thanks to the masterful direction of Gina Prince-Bythewood, however, the film shatters these cliché origins and turns into an unexpectedly electric and moving romantic drama.
“Lights” has three stars that allow it to transcend the genre. The first is British born actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who is best known for her role as the title character in this year”s indie hit “Belle.” Mbatha-Raw plays Noni Jean, a twentysomething singer who might have a passing resemblance to Rihanna and/or Nicki Minaj. At the beginning of the film she's appeared as a featured artist on three hit singles by rapper Kid Culprit (Machine Gun Kelly, um, keeping it real) and is on the verge of releasing her first solo album after years of trying to break into the business.
Noni should be on top the world, but in reality she's not in a good place. Being positioned as the object of male sexual desires in the media and outfitted in barely-there attire and a mountain of purple hair extensions is not what she envisioned her life to be. Early on she becomes inebriated and attempts to commit suicide by jumping from a hotel window. Her plan is foiled when an off-duty LAPD cop (Nate Parker) convinces her to climb back on the patio. Where she goes from there is the driving storyline of the movie.
Mbatha-Raw is shockingly good in creating both the “Noni” public persona and the real Noni, a woman beat down and depressed as she ponders how her mother and manager (an only-getting-better Minnie Driver) allowed her to get to this point. Mbatha-Raw proves she can put on a show as she's more convincing as a modern day pop star than some of the “real” music stars who have tried to play fictional music divas on the big screen (yes, we”re looking at you Mariah and Christina). Mbatha-Raw was working in American television for years before “Belle,” but her role in “Lights” is the sort of turn that could lead to new-found attention from studio casting directors.
The second key talent is the aforementioned Parker, who delivers the best performance of his career as Kaz Nicol, a police officer trying to follow in the footsteps of his father (Danny Glover), a respected Captain on the force. Kaz is more than that, however. He”s being positioned to run for an LA city council seat and the media firestorm after he saves Noni and is labeled a hero is speeding that campaign up, whether he wants it or not. Parker has simply never played such a well-rounded and rich leading character before. To say he takes the opportunity and runs with it is something of an understatement.
The third key element, and the most important, is Bythewood, who is best known for helming the cult-favorite drama “Love & Basketball” and the underrated period piece “The Secret Life of Bees.” Before “Lights” screened, Bythewood shared with the audience how it took over four years to get the movie made and that she and her husband, producer Reggie Rock Bythewood, heard more “no” responses to the project than she can remember. Clearly, the financiers and studios that turned her down made a big mistake.
Bythewood has purposely taken on an almost impossible scenario and made it something special. On the surface, you should not care for Noni”s character or her goals. You should want Kaz, a true good guy, to run for the hills from her. Instead, the filmmaker uses the same skills she has to fashion a memorable romance in “Love & Basketball” here. You believe Kaz is smitten with the Noni behind the hip-hop façade. Granted, Bythewood benefits from some genuine chemistry between the two leads, but the romance succeeds because of her direction, not in spite of it.
As a screenwriter, Bythewood is often brutally honest about her characters and their situations. There are many shades of grey in Noni, Kaz and the people in their lives. The bad guys are a façade (well, except for maybe Kid Culprit), and the film”s resolution finds Kaz coming to that exact realization. She also has much to add to the discussion about today's media and the dicey road record labels are willing to take as they desperately try to succeed in a world where album sales continue to become almost irrelevant.
Blythewood and cinematographer Tami Reiker shot the entire film with a slightly hand-held look that purposely removes the Hollywood sheen when needed. The cool, realistic lighting is a surprise until you remember Reiker shot the similarly beautiful “High Art” for Lisa Cholodenko.
“Lights” also benefits from a number of songs produced by The Dream, which were written and recorded specifically for the film, including “Masterpiece,” “C-Mon Boy,” “Private Property” and “Blackbird.” Each of those tracks feature Mbatha-Raw on vocals. The film also includes the original track “Grateful,” written by Diane Warren and performed by Rita Ora. It”s hard to imagine all five being submitted for Best Original Song, but expect “Blackbird” and “Grateful” to be near the top for consideration.
“Beyond the Lights” opens nationwide on Nov. 14.