As anyone who read my interview with Gina Prince-Bythewood might know, I’m pretty much head over heels in love with this film, as I am with one of her previous works, Love & Basketball. It’s a film that starts off by showing us a young hip-hop/R&B star, Noni, about to commit suicide and finding herself saved by an officer working her security detail for a night. Romance blossoms between them, but Beyond the Lights is much more than your typical romance between two people in different places in life. It’s a genuine look at the way an industry forces women into roles that they are unwilling to play; an industry that cares more about staying in the limelight than taking care of the artists it produces. As the film says at one point, “We’re selling fantasy here, and suicide ain’t sexy.”
Anyone who has seen Love & Basketball knows how talented Gina Prince-Bythewood is at depicting a romance through all its highs and lows. She’s one of those filmmakers who knows just how to draw great performances out of actors (in great part because her scripts are rather tight and emotionally compelling), and the chemistry between Nate Parker and Gugu Mbatha-Raw is overwhelming. But as sweeping as the scenes of romance are, they’re always accompanied by something tragic. The filmmaker covers a range of serious topics – suicide, depression and other mental health issues, and domestic and emotional abuse, among others – none of which feel gratuitous in the way they’re inserted into a surprisingly dark narrative. And she places all of this on the talented shoulders of her actors, also including Minnie Driver in some of the most intense scenes she’s had in years.
It’s Mbatha-Raw who steals the show though, perfectly falling into character as the kind of woman who knows what she wants out of life but finds herself in a position where she can’t quite grasp that. If I’m honest, the actress has become one of my favorites over the last year between the film and Belle and it’s rather astounding to watch her seamlessly move from empowered to fragile in a split-second. One moment she’s uncomfortably removing her clothing as the photographers and her mother tell her to and the next she’s as sexually empowered as ever, having sex with her boyfriend on a plane to Beyoncé’s “Drunk In Love.” Its the kind of performance (and, again, writing) that’s perfectly attuned to the way a woman’s sexuality can be entirely her own and also be taken advantage of without her genuine consent. Her on-stage in-persona scenes show a facade of power while she shakes and cries on her own, dealing with the reality of what her life has become. She screams, “I feel like I’m suffocating in the middle of the street and no one can see me dying!” It’s raw, it’s real, and it’s a performance that showcases depression in stars better than most things I can recall.
But for all that, Beyond the Lights would be nothing without the stellar music that comes along with it. If I could hand it Best Soundtrack of the year, I would, not only because it stands alone excellently, but because all of the tunes complement their visuals so damn well. It’s not just in the original music written for the film though, most of which is just as unsurprisingly catchy as the stuff on the radio nowadays, but in the classic and modern tunes picked to accompany the film. In the same way that L&B used Maxwell’s “This Woman’s Work” to astounding effect during a sex scene, this one uses the romantic Amel Larrieux’s “Don’t Let Me Down” alongside a montage of romantic scenes between the two leads that could make practically anyone swoon.
It’s all about Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” though. The song that was meant to be the film’s title doesn’t just provide goose-bump inducing performance scenes in the film, but rather, allows us a less subtle glimpse into the mind of Noni. It’s tragic, but that’s because her story is tragic, regardless of the good that comes into her life when she most needs it. Because of that ability to balance the tragedy and beauty in life, Beyond the Lights soars as a great romance, one that is more interested in exploring its characters than it is just presented your typical love story.
Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood; written by Gina Prince-Bythewood; starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nate Parker, Minnie Driver, Danny Glover, Machine Gun Kelly & India Jean-Jacques; 116 minutes.
Beyond the Lights is currently in theaters.