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So as you know, I stopped writing lengthy reviews on this site this year, keeping the blog as more of a film diary of sorts.  Lo and behold,...

Monday, April 13, 2015

Movie Review - Beyond the Lights

Beyond the Lights (2014)
Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nate Parker, Minnie Driver, and Danny Glover
Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood

From a young age, Noni always had some strong vocal chops and her mother Macy Jean (Minnie Driver) took full advantage of trying to exploit them at local talent shows around London.  As time passed, that exploitation found itself being amplified many times over and twentysomething Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) finds herself on the cusp of superstardom after having been featured in the successful songs of a famous rapper.  After winning a Billboard Music Award for her collaboration, Noni finds herself devastated as opposed to happy as her industry is simply pushing her sex appeal rather than her talent.  Saddened, Noni attempts to commit suicide by jumping off her hotel balcony, stopped only by the valiant efforts of a young cop named Kaz (Nate Parker).  Regular guy Kaz reminds Noni that she's worth more than the music industry is making her out to be and, much to her mother's chagrin, Noni begins to question her calling in life.

Beyond the Lights certainly has something to say about the music industry's incessant push to sexually exploit its female stars and director-screenwriter Gina Prince-Bythewood places this misogynistic tendency front and center in the film's less successful first half.  While I certainly understand the importance of setting up Noni's sexualization, these attacks of the industry as a whole seem too obvious and sometimes over-the-top.  As the film progresses, though, and Noni begins to question the true price of fame on her psyche, Beyond the Lights blossoms into something with much more depth than we're used to seeing.

At the center of the film is a nice performance from Gugu Mbatha-Raw who shows us a complicated woman in Noni.  The allure of fame, the need to please her mother, the vulnerability she feels when she discovers she may want something different for herself -- all mix together to create a complex creation that really comes alive in the film's second half.

Similarly, Mbatha-Raw's performance is matched by Minnie Driver whose role as Macy Jean could've simply been that of a typical stage mom, but instead is a smart woman whose drive for herself and her daughter was never meant to be destructive, but may well just be that.  While Macy Jean may see Noni falling apart at the seams, she pushes these issues away in order to travel on the road to success.  Macy knows that her daughter's got a set of pipes, but she also knows that the only way to stardom is through the lens of the male gaze coupled with female objectification.

Beyond the Lights is much more successful in its second half as Noni comes to grips with leaving behind her fame, disappointing her mother, and falling in love with a man who has drastically changed her outlook on life.  It's in this part of the film that I feel Prince-Bythewood gives us a taste of something we don't often see in films, abandoning some of the stereotypical tropes of the first half and allowing us to glimpse the slow unveiling of Noni's true self beyond the lights of fame.

The RyMickey Rating:  B

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