Beyond the Lights (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Beyond the Lights (2014)

To outsiders, Noni Jean is on top of the world.  She has a hotly anticipated R&B album weeks away from release and is blitzing the media with her happy, sexy, and confident image.  But, one night, she tries to take her life by jumping from a balcony.  Kaz Nicol, the officer charged with protecting her, bursts in and saves her life at the last moment.  This starts a relationship between the two that provides an opportunity to examine what they really want in life.  Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball, The Secret Life of Bees) wrote the screenplay and directs Beyond the Lights.

Please leave us aloneI'm going to give you a story outline, and you imagine what kind of movie it is.  A rising star in the R&B world is set to drop her latest album when she forms an unlikely romance with a police officer with political aspirations.  It sounds like an open invitation for the worst in soapy melodrama, overblown musical performances, and grand emotions with shallow characters.

Beyond the Lights proves beyond any doubt that someone with intelligence, heart, and talent can find the powerful emotional core within any scenario.  Movies exist not only to show us the impossible in terms of physical feats, like a spacecraft hurtling into a black hole.  But they also exist to show us impossible relationships formed out of deep need, of people who have become such passive reflections of their environment that any step toward individuality disrupts the lives of every connected person.  What Gina Prince-Bythewood has done is more impressive than any big budgeted spectacle.  She has looked into worlds that seem alien, grounded them with a bevy of impressive performances, and presented them in such a way that the visuals speak more about society than any political screed you could read.

Not only is Beyond the Lights one of the best films of the year, it is one of the densest and most satisfying romantic dramas in years.  No matter how you decide to approach Beyond the Lights there is a treasure waiting.  If you want to review it purely from an academic perspective and the cultural differences between hegemony and appropriation within the necessary shifting identities late-period capitalism requires - then you're in great shape.  But if you are just in the mood for a challenging and beautiful look at two broken professionals who are trying to figure out what is best for the both of them then Beyond the Lights is simply wonderful.

Noni is singing from her heart but is kept grounded, and on fours, by people

Noni is singing from her heart but is kept grounded, and on fours, by people who are not interested in what she wants.

But I don't want to ignore the larger social conversation that Beyond the Lights bravely engages in.  There's a cut between two scenes in Beyond the Lights that sees the young and talented Noni Jean (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) transformed into the R&B sex icon known simply as "Noni".  As a child her hair is curly and difficult to comb, she loves to sing Nina Simone, and is first runner-up in a talent show consisting entirely of white girls who do the same tap-dance routine that Shirley Temple made popular at the beginning of the 20th century.  The transformation between young and older Noni is shocking - there are hardly any traces of the little girl left.  Noni gyrates, her skin is lit to make her appear whiter, those wonderful curls replaced by a dyed weave to keep her hair straight, and she is the sexual tool of a white rapper.

Pop culture has no room for girls like the younger Noni, but plenty of space for those willing to brighten up their skin and become subservient to the dominant white appropriation of rap.  Throughout Beyond the Lights Prince-Bythewood smartly observes that America's class problem makes itself known in different ways.  Noni's mother, brilliantly played by Minnie Driver, understands this and tries to make the system accept her black daughter by prepping Noni to "out-white" everyone else while neglecting how Noni needs her own identity to survive.  Cinematographer Tami Reiker hints at this through those drastic lighting changes like when we watch the young Noni violently transform into sex-object Noni, but also in the subtle way Reiker shifts the lighting to allow Noni's dark skin and curly hair to return.

Beyond the Lights is more than cultural commentary though, it's a sturdy romance that takes place almost entirely from the perspective of Noni's wants and pleasures.  It's rare to find films outside of the Tyler Perry canon that are concerned with the professional and emotional needs of women and Prince-Bythewood does not use the eventual romance between Noni and Kaz (Nate Parker) as a way of replacing Noni's professional goals.  In fact, their romance starts entirely because of her professional dissatisfaction as she has been pushed into being an idol that is in direct conflict with the hopeful songwriter she wants to be.  Noni and Kaz's conversations are mature and don't see their relationship as the start and stop of the world.  She's worried that he is going to control her like so many other people in her life, and he is cautious because she may negatively shade his political career because of her risqué R&B persona.

Beyond the Lights is the rare film concerned almost entirely with Noni's professional wants and personal desires.

Beyond the Lights is the rare film concerned almost entirely with Noni's professional wants and personal desires.

Prince-Bythewood weaves these complex and mature story threads together with a handful of superb performances.  Driver, Parker, and Danny Glover as Kaz's father, each approach Prince-Bythewood's screenplay with subtlety and intelligence, letting her concise words land instead of big emotions.  But Mbatha-Raw, with her strong voice and exposed heart, is the raw nerve of Beyond the Lights.  She has to be constantly "on" as she portrays completely different people between shots, like in the impressive moment she is full-"Noni" as she teases a man in a club then completely deflates when the camera is off of her, only to force a smile when she's the object of attention again.  She has many shades of "Noni" that when she finally gets to be unguarded during a beach interlude that her sudden happiness and freedom brightens up the screen.  It's a wonderful and layered performance that I hope to see popping up more as year-end award nominations roll in.

These subtle strengths are enforced by the wonderful visuals and sound design used throughout Beyond the Lights.  Modern R&B is a sound that haunts Noni and is rarely heard in clear audio but echos after her in a distorted form.  Then there's the haunting scene where Noni returns to her youthful dreams and sings Nina Simone's "Blackbird" and all the sound, from the murmur of the crowd to the crashing of the waves, whittles down as her voice becomes the center of existence.  Reiker's cinematography allows for some stunning shots as well, like a beautiful midnight reunion between Noni and Kaz that has her hope shining on him through the pavement while he walks down to her on a staircase made of darkness.

Everything weaves together under Prince-Bythewood's careful hands.  She took a premise that could have been a shallow and flashy spectacle and decided to examine the wounded people inside.  It's a beautiful, often times haunting, and constantly intelligent romance that takes professional lives as seriously as the romance.  Sometimes people find each other for the wrong reasons, but because of the right and difficult choices can grow together instead of apart.  Beyond the Lights is a wonderful and mature look at how.

Tail - Beyond the LightsBeyond the Lights (2014)

Screenplay written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood.
Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Minnie Driver, Nate Parker, and Danny Glover.

Posted by Andrew

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