One of the biggest surprises of the fall movie season arrives in the form of the music-laden romance Beyond the Lights.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw is Noni and we meet her as a little girl at a talent competition. She sings Nina Simone’s Blackbird like an angel has fallen from heaven. But alas, she doesn’t win and her mother (Minnie Driver) has her trash her second place trophy because “coming in second is no way to make it big.”
In mere moments, writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball) has given us the dynamic that will define the first two acts of her latest triumph. We immediately flash forward to the present and Noni is a hip hop singer ready to become enormous. She has three number one songs with a rapper (also her boyfriend), her debut album is the most anticipated of the year and her mother/manager has orchestrated everything that “they” wished for into a version of reality that they always dreamed of.
Except, as we see in the Beyond the Lights trailer, Noni is far from happy. It is there that she runs into LAPD officer Kaz (Nate Turner). They form the most unlikely of connections that will permeate the range of human emotions throughout the rest of the film. Their love affair is one for the cinematic ages -- yes, seriously.
See, those you love should not only have you striving to constantly better yourselves, but also to be your true self. And that is what Kaz does for Noni, and vice versa. It’s entirely believable that these two would fall in love and that their romance would be tested by the realities of her (and his) world. See, he’s being groomed to run for office in LA and dating a living-on-the-edge pop star isn’t exactly helping his career either.
Mbatha-Raw is a revelation. She has the voice of an angel and effortlessly moves from the hip hop world to a more soulful one that is truly her dream music to bring to the world. And then there’s her acting. We feel her pain. We feel her pull between maternal influence and striking out on her own that every single soul watching this movie could identify with.
Parker, well, he brings a subtle brilliance to his Kaz. He also is a product of what a parent (a too rarely used Danny Glover) wants. And the chemistry between these two is electric.
Both Noni and Kaz -- through their collective hearts and minds -- will have to find their own ways to self realization and thus happiness. It is the audience's true treat that we get to go along for the ride.
Prince-Bythewood has crafted a modern love story that works on every level, and that is a rarity in today’s cinematic market. Just when you think you can see where the story is going, it takes off in another direction. Yet, it’s not a movement of plot that doesn’t make sense. It’s just a refreshing turn for a romance when the audience is conditioned to expect certain things from their romances due to the many story avenues that are often traveled ad nauseum, and this one goes down none of those roads.
Our Beyond the Lights review cannot recommend this movie enough for fans of music movies, romances and stellar storytelling, regardless of its genre.