Showbiz melodramas get a bad rap. Rags to riches stories are a cliché but they’re a good one. An emotional drama detailing the rise to fame from humble beginnings to massive exposure can be captivating. It’s why the 1937 film A Star Is Born has been remade twice, so far that is. Warner Bros. has plans for another remake. It’s also why the chronicle can be seen as the blueprint for a host of other movies that happen to have female leads: Funny Girl, Mahogany, The Rose, Coal Miner’s Daughter, The Bodyguard, Dreamgirls. Now add Beyond the Lights to that list. It’s not the most innovative work of art, but it does take something hackneyed and update the model with enough flair for the 2010‘s.
What elevates Beyond the Lights is the acting, particularly of the lead Gugu Mbatha-Raw, This is the second time I’ve seen the aspiring actress in 2014. She was also the star of Belle which came out in May. If these two roles are representative of what is to come, we are witnessing the arrival of an exciting new talent. Here Gugu plays Noni Jean, a rising R&B singer that has just had a hit with heavily tattooed white rapper Kid Culprit (real-life rapper Machine Gun Kelly). The song is called “Masterpiece” and it’s steadily climbing up the charts with her featured performance. Gugu actually does her own singing when performing, although other artists perform the background music. “Fly Before You Fall” for example is beautifully sung by Cynthia Erivo. The soundtrack is mostly written and produced by R&B super-producer Terius “The Dream” Nash.
All would seem right in Noni’s life but she is not happy. A attempt at ending her own life is failed by a handsome cop (Nate Parker) assigned to guard her. Kaz Nicol has political ambitions that should preclude his association with the racy pop star. Minnie Driver is Noni’s agent and stage mother, Macy Jean. A fiercely loyal but overbearing presence in her life that puts her daughter’s career first and her own well being second. At times Macy seems so driven by success as to be inhuman, but you can see the desire she has for her daughter to be successful. She’s been there since the beginning and it’s her “us against the world” mentality that humanizes Macy. A touching early moment is when young actress India Jean-Jacques (Noni as a little girl) sings “Blackbird” at a talent competition. Her mom is a most exasperating character, but it’s obvious she does love her daughter.
Beyond the lights is a tale that inhabits the contemporary R&B realm of artists like Rihanna. Noni feels pushed by her domineering mother into fronting a hyper-sexual image with which she doesn’t feel comfortable. Her musical style sports vocals that are technologically enhanced by Auto-Tune and deep percussive bass. She wishes to retreat to a more simple style of her artistic idol Nina Simone. These portraits of the music industry often lambaste the pre-fabricated, highly choreographed pop star, but one look at the Top 40 will show that is what people want. As her momager’s behavior widens the divide between them, Noni escapes to a island resort. Here the narrative takes on a poignancy I didn’t expect. Lamenting the way people are marketed for a mass audience is old hat, but Gugu renders her sorrow with distinction. As she literally strips away the long colored strands of straight hair woven into her own, she symbolically reveals her true self. Her subsequent triumph of Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” in a karaoke bar becomes a declaration. It’s an affecting transformation and Gugu makes the metamorphosis seem fresh and new.