It’s easy to dismiss many modern romantic movies, partly because they often adhere to rigid templates. Like comedy, it’s actually a hard genre to successfully pull off and the best examples make it look effortless. There’s archetypes like the classic tale (The Notebook), the post-modern dismantling of the genre (Crazy, Stupid, Love.), the unconventional spin (Lars and the Real Girl), and even the tragic romance that ends in heartbreak (Blue Valentine). Some love stories even star actors other than Ryan Gosling, like writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s latest film Beyond the Lights.
Beyond the Lights details the burgeoning romance between a pop starlet with a surprisingly strong voice and her stoic cop protector, making comparisons to 1992’s The Bodyguard inevitable. But while successful, The Bodyguard never really worked as anything other than a melodramatic fantasy, whereas Beyond the Lights takes its setting and characters seriously, providing a more nuanced and grounded story. It cleverly elides most trappings of its genre but can’t help but feel cliched in spots, with much of the familiarity forgiven in the face of a strong lead performance.
Rising British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars as Noni Jean, a pop star with Rihanna’s sex appeal and Beyoncé’s pipes and stage parents. We first meet Noni as a ten-year-old girl in Brixton as she’s sheparded to a talent show by her eager mother Macy (Minnie Driver). After wowing the crowd with a Nina Simone number the judges award biracial Noni second place, giving first to a ditzy blond baton twirler. Noni’s mother Macy is enraged at the injustice, lashing out at her daughter and setting the stage for a quick rise to stardom spurred on by not just talent by an overbearing mother with something to prove.
Cut to the present day and the 20-something Noni (introduced in a salacious music video that would count as parody if the industry wasn’t so hyper-sexualized) is being honoured at the Billboard Music Awards and wins an award before her debut album has even dropped. She’s guested on three tracks by white-hot rapper Kid Culprit (real life rapper Machine Gun Kelly) and has fallen into a relationship with him at her studio’s behest. It’s clear Noni’s a cog in the machine, being shuttled from one nightclub to the next and trotted out for paparazzi and adoring crowds like a scantily-clad plaything.
On the eve of her greatest professional successes she locks herself in her room and drunkenly threatens to fling herself off her balcony, coming close to suicide until dashing cop (and moonlighting bodyguard) Kaz (Nate Parker) saves her. If that sounds like a cliched set up it’s because it is, but thankfully the movie has already set up a believable setting and characters by this point, allowing viewers to be drawn in. The pop music world of constant social media spin, bullshit meetings, and endless manoeuvering feels authentic and suitably hollow, helped by the fact that Prince-Bythewood’s script avoids sensationalism (for the most part). Instead, Beyond the Lights is more naturalistic, with dialogue that sounds off-the-cuff.
Mbatha-Raw nails the role of Noni, providing her character with the veneer of outward strength but a brittle core. She has to find her inner strength and reject the trappings of modern fame and her journey is easy to guess if you’ve seen a movie before. At least it feels like it progresses naturally and Mbatha-Raw conveys not just physical changes (when she “lets her hair down” it’s a significant moment) but emotional ones as one.
On the other side of the relationship is Kaz, a stoic cop with political aspirations motivated partly by his father Captain Nicol (Danny Glover). Kaz is a more inward character and almost noble to a fault, but the constant push and pull between him and Noni, generated through mutual attraction and disparate personalities, does seem mostly believable. He gets a great scene when Noni takes him on a private jet and seduces him to Beyoncé’s “Drunk In Love” that is funny, sexy and cool in a way that lots of movies strive for but few pull off.
There’s natural roadblocks to Noni and Kaz’s love, namely her careerism and his need to keep his life simple, but it’s a compelling dynamic between two people who both have dreams and goals. The movie doesn’t bother with simple miscommunications or third-wheel antagonists to create conflict, but instead shows how difficult it can be to juggle the expectations of others and yourself against something that feels right but it isn’t easy. In that way Beyond the Lights is refreshing and adult in a genre that is often regressive and simplistic in its portrayals of two people in love.
Buoyed by a star-making performance from Gugu Mbatha-Raw (seriously, she’s going to be everywhere soon) and its ability to subvert expectations (while still falling into a few traps), Beyond the Lights is a sultry romantic film with a decidedly 21st-century bent. It’s got a killer soundtrack too.
Beyond the Lights (2014)
Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Runtime: 116 minutes