Beyond the Lights (Relativity Media, PG-13)

film beyond-the-lights_smYou might be pleasantly surprised that it isn’t quite as painful to watch as you feared.


film beyond-the-lightsIt seems like each passing year I meet more and more avowed fans of Gina Prince-Bythewood’s 2000 film Love & Basketball. It’s one of those films a lot of people think they don’t want to see, but I can’t think of one person who has seen it and doesn’t like it. Love & Basketball was Prince-Bythewood’s first film, and she hasn’t been terribly prolific since then. In 2008, she made The Secret Life of Bees, and now her new one, Beyond the Lights, seems a somewhat calculated attempt to recreate the success of Love & Basketball. In a short, filmed introduction that played before the promotional screening I attended, Prince-Bythewood basically said the same thing herself. It’s hard to blame her, since L&B’s audience seems to grow as the years pass.

Beyond the Lights is a romantic comedy centered on British pop sensation Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), whose early career trajectory seems loosely modeled after Nicki Minaj’s, but who looks more like Rihanna. As the film begins, Noni is at the top of her game, celebrity-wise, but is deeply depressed; she even attempts suicide, only to be saved by a police officer, Kaz (short for Kazaam, and played by Nate Parker), who was filling in for her security guard. Of course, Noni and Kaz fall in love after this meeting—or, more accurately, because of it—and their journey together is what makes up most of the film.

Viewers might recognize Mbatha-Raw from her excellent performance as the lead of Amma Asante’s film Belle earlier this year. That said, these viewers would recognize her by name only, as her characters and their depictions are polar opposites. Mbatha-Raw’s character in Belle, Dido, was a refined British girl of the Victorian era, where here in Beyond the Lights she’s got a Purplesaurus Rex–colored weave and is extremely sexualized, constantly gyrating on stage or in front of cameras wearing practically nothing, and then going home to her ATL Twin-looking rapper boyfriend, Kid Culprit (Richard Colson Baker, a/k/a Machine Gun Kelly). Beyond the Lights doesn’t celebrate this culture, at least—Noni is suicidal because of it, remember—but the film does have it both ways, and I’m sure the skin on display will help get males into the theater.

Speaking of which, the crowd at the aforementioned promo screening I attended was about 95% female, and it was a lot of fun to see this film with them; it reminded me of a similar experience I had at the press screening of Magic Mike. Really, though, I would expect Beyond the Lights to appeal to the general male audience more than most Hollywood romantic comedies; apart from the frequent lack of clothing from Ms. Mbatha-Raw, the film is as much a fairytale for Kaz as it is for Noni. While Noni (and her vicarious female audience) is rescued by the handsome prince Kaz, Kaz (and his vicarious male audience) is courted by the gorgeous, talented, rich mega-celebrity Noni, which is just as unrealistic a fairytale as Noni’s story, if not more so.

Which leads me to the fact that, as one might expect, Beyond the Lights has basically zero credibility. The story is indeed likened to a fairytale in the text of the film, and they sure don’t try any harder than your average enchanted story to make you believe that this could actually happen. There’s all manner of suspension of disbelief-challenging plot points along the way, such as a horribly glaring one early on where Noni’s label wants to drop her because she’s in the press too much. (What?)

Hollywood romantic comedies are about the most maligned genre these days, usually for good reason. Put in that context, Beyond the Lights is above average, thanks mostly to the talent and charisma of Mbatha-Raw and Parker. But compared to most other films, Beyond the Lights is still pretty bad. You might be pleasantly surprised that it isn’t quite as painful to watch as you feared, but I don’t see it having a surprisingly large fan base 14 years from now, either. | Pete Timmermann

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