Beyond the Lights
dir-scr Gina Prince-Bythewood
prd Stephanie Allain, Reggie Rock Bythewood, Ryan Kavanaugh, Amar'e Stoudemire
with Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nate Parker, Minnie Driver, Danny Glover, Colson "MGK" Baker, Aml Ameen, Benito Martinez, Aisha Hinds, India Jean-Jacques, Darryl Stephens, Elaine Tan, Isaac Keys
release US 14.Nov.14, UK 29.Jun.15
14/US Relativity 1h56
Beyond the Lights
My bodyguard: Mbatha-Raw and Parker

driver glover stephens
R E V I E W    B Y    R I C H    C L I N E
Beyond the Lights Anchored by yet another superbly complex performance from Gugu Mbatha-Raw, this sudsy romance is packed with dark edges that keep it from ever becoming too silly. With a strong sense of the music industry, it also has something to say about pop culture and the pressure on artists to maintain a fictional public persona.

After a tough childhood in London with her demanding mother Macy (Driver), Noni (Mbatha-Raw) has finally hit stardom in America as a raunchy hip-hop artist. Pushed by her mother and feeling like she can't be herself, Noni is at the end of her rope when her bodyguard Kaz (Parker) talks her off a high hotel-room ledge. As they bond, he offers an escape from the craziness of fame, especially since he understands the pressure of living up to his own forceful dad (Glover). So Noni and Kaz plot an escape from the public eye.

Writer-director Prince-Blythewood coaxes gritty, honest performances from her up-for-it cast, filling scenes with punchy details that capture both the dark times and the starry high life. It's an involving premise, carefully designed to play on the audience's fantasies and expectations. The dramatic confrontations and romantic gyrations are all fairly predictable, including an unnecessary police subplot involving an abusive husband. But everything builds to a wonderfully cathartic climax.

And the engaging performances make even the most contrived story elements thoroughly involving. Mbatha-Raw is incandescent, weaving in shadows of longing and a tough self-destructive streak. By comparison, Parker's Kaz is an almost dream-like nice, strong man who literally helps her let her hair down. And Driver manages to reveal a hint of caring within her intensely self-serving showbiz mum. There are also a stream of music industry cameos that add some amusing realism to the glitzy setting.

It's niggling that for all her talent and yearning for independence, the script suggests that all Noni needs is a man. But Mbatha-Raw undermines that cliche with her steely performance. And Prince-Blythewood cleverly fills the screen with stark contrasts, such as between Noni's sex-infused duet with a rapper (Baker) and her beloved jazz standard Blackbird. She also steers the film straight into bigger issues like news agendas, industry objectification, racial violence and even religious pressures. In the end, these things begin to feel a bit preachy, but they add heft to an enjoyably frothy story.

cert 12 themes, language, sexuality 29.Apr.15

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