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Review: Beyond the Lights (2014)

Beyond the Lights (2014)

Directed by: Gina Prince-Bythewood

Premise: A hip-hop superstar (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) attempts suicide but is saved by a police officer (Nate Parker). The singer and the cop begin to see each other socially but the pressures of fame wear on the relationship.

What Works: The way Beyond the Lights has been marketed would lead viewers to believe that it’s something along the lines of How Stella Got Her Groove Back or The Bodyguard. That impression is not accurate and Beyond the Lights is a much better film than that. This is primarily a love story and as that it works well. Like many love stories, Beyond the Lights is about two people who end up in an unlikely relationship but this is much better than the average screen romance. Actors Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker are terrific actors and they have a strong on screen rapport. Most importantly they possess the critical quality of all love stories: they are a likeable couple who the audience will want to see together. The film utilizes the familiar formula of a commoner who falls for an aristocrat (the aristocracy in this case being celebrity) but the filmmakers have done more than reiterate the themes of a Jane Austen novel. The love story of Beyond the Lights takes place against a background of contemporary fame and the moviemakers have less than complimentary things to say about today’s music scene. Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s character is an up and coming hip-hop star and her public image is of a sexual object. The movie makes it quite clear that she is being mentally abused and devalued through the gristmill of celebrity. In that respect, the filmmakers of Beyond the Lights are able to do something very difficult. Whenever celebrities whine about the entrapments of fame it invites a cynical response because those of us on the outside see that those entrapments come with great wealth and privilege. Beyond the Lights is able to overcome that cynical response by creating a fully realized character, substantiating her pain and the prospect of real love, and designing sequences that visualize her exploitation by her handlers.

What Doesn’t: There is no ignoring the fact that Beyond the Lights ultimately adheres to the clichés of movie romances and show business dramas. The filmmakers tell this kind of story very well and they manage to inject some social commentary into their movie but this is also the kind of story that audiences will be able to map out by the end of the first act. The predictability of the narrative is part of the appeal of romantic stories like this, at least for the core audience, but the film is so unique in other regards that Beyond the Lights feels compromised when it adheres to convention. The one glaring problem with Beyond the Lights is that it is a little too hopeful and idealistic. The film opens with Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s character nearly committing suicide. Instead of clawing her way back from a self-destructive precipice, the suicide attempt is mostly shrugged off; there are no follow up attempts and from then on she is miserable but not dangerously so. This movie depicts a woman suffering from depression as a result of being devalued and objectified but the solution to her depression is to spend a weekend at a beach house with her boyfriend, after which she is okay. This love-conquers-all solution is appealing but it is also inadequate to the subject matter. The movie is just too simplistic with the character’s depression and rehabilitation. There are several other unlikely scenes, notably a moment where Nate Parker’s character loses his temper and publicly punches a guy who has insulted his celebrity girlfriend. Given that he is a police officer, this ought to be cause for suspension or termination but the event has no consequences. Moments like this stretch the movies’ credibility.

Bottom Line: Beyond the Lights is an above average movie about love and fame. It’s ultimately a conventional story but the love story is done well and there is enough going on in the background of the film to elevate it above other movies.

Episode: #519 (November 23, 2014)