'Beyond the Lights': Toronto Review

Beyond the Lights
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
Familiar but fun

Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays a nascent pop star shrinking from the spotlight in Gina Prince-Bythewood's romantic drama

Midway through Beyond the Lights, Minnie Driver’s character, a brassy South London showbiz mother who gives Gypsy’s Rose a run for her money, snarls at her flailing supernova daughter, “Congratulations, you’re a bloody cliche!” That might be true, but Gina Prince-Bythewood’s entertaining music-biz melodrama is no less satisfying for the familiarity of its soapy trajectory. As the stunned deer in the headlights of fame, Gugu Mbatha-Raw is incandescent, playing a vulnerable young woman suffocating in the processed packaging of a sizzling pop goddess. Strong chemistry with co-star Nate Parker and a pulsing soundtrack should help give this November Relativity release a legitimate commercial shot.

Predictable or not, it’s easy to shove aside all thoughts of guilty pleasure and just succumb to these behind-the-glittery-curtain sagas when there’s as much heart and feeling as writer-director Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball) injects into her material. But the big surprise here is Mbatha-Raw, who turned heads this year in the period drama Belle. The emerging Brit actress proves she’s equally captivating in the very contemporary drag of a booty-shaking Beyonce-Rihanna clone, selling sex with a pumped-up R&B beat.

The film opens in London in 1998, where white Brixton single mum Macy Jean (Driver) guides her shy black 10-year-old daughter, Noni (India Jean-Jacques), through a talent contest. Noni comes in second with an unaccompanied performance of Nina Simone’s plaintive “Blackbird,” but that represents failure for hungry Macy. She tells the compliant kid to toss the trophy, hissing, “You wanna be a runner-up? Or you wanna be a winner?”

Prince-Bythewood amusingly navigates a leap forward in time by cutting to an aggressively sexual music video for “Masterpiece,” one of three back-to-back hits that the adult Noni (Mbatha-Raw) has recorded with superstar white rapper Kid Culprit (Colson “MGK” Baker). The awkward, bespectacled girl with the tangled mop of hair has been transformed into a strutting gazelle, with a toned body, a flowing weave and a micro wardrobe. The song wins a Billboard Award, but when Noni returns to her Beverly Hills hotel, she attempts a suicide dive off her 12th floor balcony and is rescued by Kaz (Parker), an LAPD hunk on celebrity-babysitting duty.

Macy, now running a tight ship as Noni’s manager, goes into instant spin mode. At a press conference, the incident is brushed off as the accidental result of too many celebratory drinks, and Kaz is hailed as a hero. But despite receiving a fat check as payment for sticking to the story, the cop is too sensitive a brother not to feel Noni’s pain. And she likes that he sees beyond the fame to the soulful girl inside.

There’s a somewhat schematic neatness to Noni and Kaz both being driven by single parents who want success for their children at least partly for their own vicarious glory. In Kaz’s case it’s his father, Police Captain Nicol (Danny Glover), who has helped him strategize a career path in which law enforcement is the stepping stone between political science and actual politics, starting with Los Angeles city council and then moving up to bigger things. Romance with a train-wreck pop tart is not part of the plan.

With the label threatening to drop Noni’s debut album due to negative social media attention, it’s imperative that she kick ass — or, at the very least, show some — in a live performance at the BET Awards. But Kaz’s lesson of self-worth (he reads Obama books and wears Muhammad Ali T-shirts) prompts her to rebel, which doesn’t sit well with skeevy Kid Culprit, with Macy or with the label.

Pretty much every development here is preprogrammed from countless films about the meteoric rise to stardom, the lack of oxygen up there and the good-lovin’ angel who steps in to light the way back down to Earth. But Prince-Bythewood’s script brings surprising integrity to that well-trodden arc, and while Kaz is a major force in Noni’s outcome, it’s her own backbone and intelligence that get her through. It may be obvious, but watching her remove her fake nails and weave and set free the realness within is quite moving.

Economy is not exactly a strong point here, and at just under two hours, the film at times lingers where it should glide, pausing for at least a couple too many music montages. But these are appealing characters to spend time with, and both Mbatha-Raw and Parker bring warmth, charisma and emotional openness to their roles that keeps you rooting for them to reconcile their conflicted paths. Even Driver’s character has her brittle edges softened enough to stop her from being a monster.

The film looks, and more important, sounds sharp. Cool grooves pepper the soundtrack, and the handful of songs for Noni, written by Terius “The-Dream” Nash and Richard C. Baker, mimic the vernacular of today’s overproduced R&B convincingly enough to make it credible that everyone wants a piece of her. If the ultimate message is that young female pop stars may have far more depth than their synthetic performance image suggests, that won’t stop the demographic for those artists from enjoying this movie.

Production companies: Relativity Media, Undisputed Cinema, Homegrown Pictures, BET Films

Cast: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nate Parker, Minnie Driver, Colson “MGK” Baker, Danny Glover, Aml Ameen, Benito Martinez, Aisha Hinds, India Jean-Jacques

Director-screenwriter: Gina Prince-Bythewood

Producers: Stephanie Allain, Reggie Rock Bythewood, Ryan Kavanagh, Amar’e Stoudamire

Executive producers: Tucker Tooley, Matt Alvarez, Robbie Brenner, Ron Burkle, Jason Colbeck

Director of photography: Tami Reiker

Production designer: Cecilia Montiel

Costume designer: Sandra Hernandez

Music: Mark Isham

Editor: Terilyn A. Shropshire

Choreographer: Laurieann Gibson

Sales: Relativity Media

Rated PG-13, 116 minutes