‘Beyond the Lights’
Director: Gina Prince-Blythewood
Stars: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nate Parker
4 (out of 5) Globes
To everyone except the genre’s fans, “melodrama” is a bad word — a form that’s only respectable if it’s subverted a la the secretly satirical weepies of Douglas Sirk. But what of straight-up melodramas, ones that aren’t afraid to be predictable or cheesy or treated like comfort food? That describes “Beyond the Lights,” a musical-themed romance in the vein of “Mahagony” and “Lady Sings the Blues,” which treats its soapy tale with utter seriousness and isn’t ashamed that everything, sometimes down to the beat, is easily foreseeable. It has no qualms about what it is, and just wants to do it well.
And it does it really well, starting with giving lead spot to the excellent Gugu Mbatha-Raw. The “Belle” star plays Noni, a honey-voiced, purple-haired, budding pop star poised to be the next Rihanna/Beyonce. We first see her as a kid, singing Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” at a talent show; it then shock-cuts to her doing barely clothed gyrations in a video. Noni’s success has been carefully sculpted by her enjoyably monstrous stage mom (Minnie Driver), and she’s sick of purring vapid lyrics over fat beats. She finally gets a reason to ditch it upon meeting Kaz (Nate Parker), a policeman and aspiring politician and probably the modern age’s last old school gentleman.
Kaz is ridiculously, sometimes snicker-inducingly decent — a taciturn but studly and sometimes shirtless man’s man, who worms his way into her heart by telling her to put on her seatbelt, who defends her honor, even when someone calls her a “broad.” (Occasionally, and endearingly, this movie seems to be set in 1954.) Parker goes a little too far with the laidback cool; sometimes he’s simply stiff. But his charisma goes well with Mbatha-Raw’s increasingly fragile performance. Noni has to gradually shed her dolled-up public persona for a more relaxed and human look and, as in “Belle,” Mbatha-Raw has the kind of open face that tells you all you need to know.
What Mbatha-Raw does here is what melodrama does best: it lets us bear witness to emotions at their most roiling. These days the genre has been hijacked by Nicholas Sparks, and “Beyond the Lights” serves to show how there’s more than one kind of melodrama. It never gets ridiculous, as Sparks films reliably do, and it never encourages us to laugh. It treats what happens with utmost seriousness, but its seriousness never seems misjudged or unearned.
It does, for the record, slightly subvert this tidy genre. Driver throws herself fully and ecstatically into the evil stage mom role, but the film, and Driver, takes the time to show how she got that way — that her drive for success was a way of getting them out of Bristol, where few looked kindly on a mixed-race daughter. (The race element is never a big deal, which is not to say it’s ignored.) The writer-director is Gina Prince-Bythewood, of “Love & Basketball,” who plays it as straight as she can. It's all naturalistic performances that happen in fuzzy, dim lighting — images that dare to be treated seriously, not as mere corn.
Is it too hard on the pop world? Did it need to depict it motivated only by sex and money? It’s not wrong — in fact, it’s right — but this is a film that's at its best when dealing in grays. Then again, it gets the draw of pop superstardom, and is acutely aware of the lengths required to achieve it; not only must Nomi publically canoodle with a Machine Gun Kelly-like rapper (played by Machine Gun Kelly), but she has to loan herself out as a guest star until she can go solo. And reactionary about sex as it can seem, it's genuinely sexy, with one legitimately hot sex scene — and not the one later in that’s your usual soft-focus-plus-tasteful music PG-13 “love scene.” This is how melodrama is done: sincerely, patiently, unapologetically, and with performances that would kill even in a more respectable genre.