Beyond the Lights is released straight-to-DVD here in the UK this week, and this makes sense to a degree. On paper, it sounds exactly the kind of thing you’d expect to find in the bargain bin of a Matalan or appearing on one of the channels somewhere in the late 30s on the freeview listings. It’s a crying shame that it’s being judged on first impressions, though, because in spite of first appearances, it’s a passionate, emotionally intellgent film that transcends its clichéd concept through the sheer force of its writing and performances. It also helps that the film is committed to presenting its world as the same as our own: the places are real, the award ceremonies are real (the Billboards and BETs), the references to social media and other current pop songs don’t feel forced, and Chaka Khan even pops up at one point to compliment the protagonist’s hair.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars as the young R&B star Noni, a young woman who has been pushed into celebrity by her overbearing mother (Minnie Driver). Exhausted by living a life that she has little control over she attempts suicide only to be rescued by a handsome young cop named Kaz (Nate Parker), a man who’s genuine understand on her sends her on a path of soul-searching and launches her attempts to break free of the shackles that have bound her. It sounds cheesy and it often is: predictability is something that it makes no efforts to eschew, instead content to explore its characters emotions with honesty and specifity. Mbatha-Raw anchors the proceedings with her committed, no-holding-back performance, finding the emotional truth in each moment even when the film is at its most dubious, believability-wise. Her voice is up to the task, too: she absolutely nails a performance of Nina Simone’s ‘Blackbird’ at a moment so crucial that the whole film would have crumbled around it should she have failed to pass muster. Minnie Driver finds the depth and dimensions to her Mamma Rose character too, turning what could have been shrill and one-note into something that adds real stakes – her actions come from a place of real love, even if they end up tearing her daughter apart.
The film is at its most interesting when exploring this side of fame and the idea that success and celebrity means commodifying talent and, ultimately, one’s body. The real emotional weight comes from the scenes where Noni is asked to remove clothing by those who are met with little resistance from her mother, who sees this as the path to financial stability. In one pivotal scene Noni attempts to reclaim her sexuality by choosing not to disrobe during a performance and is practically sexually assaulted on-stage for it by a rap star who sees this kind of voyeurism as his right, and this is viewed by those around her as a career-killing move on her part. These ideas aren’t explored in a prudish or overtly critical manner, either, but with a genuine interest the relationship between a person’s image and their actual self, and how celebrity forces women, and especially woman of colour, into exploiting their own bodies to achieve their own dreams. It goes beyond the simplistic idea of selling sex. At one point early in the film Noni defeatedly tells Kaz that she has never been in control of her own life, and the implication is that she’s being eaten from the inside out by those around her.
Sadly, though, instead of offering us any answers to this, the film has Noni go through a fairly rote rebirth that doesn’t pay on the promise the film’s gripping first half. For all its good intentions and smart writing, the film does eventually succumb to cliché and ends on a low, exposing its weaknesses that could be overlooked early in its second act. Most disappointing of all is that there isn’t nearly enough performance throughout, and the songs that do appear don’t convince. In particular, the song that Noni writes herself for her reemergence as a Serious Artist is the weakest of the bunch and doesn’t hold a candle to the Nina Simone track it pays homage to, and it’s Mbatha-Raw’s weakest performance too; it simply feels like it was written for someone with a different range.
It’s a shame that the film wasn’t allowed the funding that it needed to really shine, either: the clothes and sets don’t ever convincingly project the luxe lifestyle that they’re supposed to, and the cameras do nothing to dispel the made-for-TV feel that the film has been lumbered with. This is most certainly due to the sad fact that a film written and directed by a woman of colour, about a woman of colour, still doesn’t seem bankable to Hollywood despite all evidence to the contrary and the obvious talent both behind and in front of the camera. Until things change – and I sincerely hope that this film will help – we need to celebrate that a film like Beyond the Lights got made at all. For all its flaws, it’s a smart movie that reflects the real world in intelligent ways and is made with infectious earnestness and honesty. There are few movies in Hollywood that can say the same thing.