“Beyond the Lights” is another pain-behind-the-music romance.
But it’s so well written, cast and played that we lose ourselves in the comfort food familiarity of it all. This hip-hop era “Bodyguard” has heart and soul, thanks to stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Minnie Driver and Nate Parker. Simple as it is, it simply works.
Mbatha-Raw shows a totally different set of skills from those on display in her breakout period-piece hit “Belle.” As rising hip hop-phenom Noni, she sings about her frankest desires and provocatively dances in outfits that leave little to the imagination.
She’s dating star rapper Kid Culprit (Richard Colson Baker, aka Machine Gun Kelly) who guest-starred on her debut record. She doesn’t drink and never loses track of the album that’s about to drop. Her driven stage mother/manager (Minnie Driver) sees to it that Noni’s eyes are on the prize.
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But Noni is in misery. On impulse, in what should be her moment of glory, she gets drunk and staggers out onto a balcony to jump. Only the cop assigned to guard her door can save her.
That’s the question that hangs over the rest of the movie. Can officer Kaz Nicol (Nate Parker) save Noni? From herself, her mother, a career path that is as phony as her streaked weave, the falsies her handlers stuff into her bra before each photo shoot, the sexpot persona that’s been built for her?
The twists to writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s (“Love & Basketball,” “The Secret Life of Bees”) film come from the competing agendas set up here. Officer Nicol is the son of an L.A.P.D. captain (Danny Glover), a kid being groomed for politics.
Whatever the tabloids and gossip websites think did or didn’t happen on that balcony could be damaging for Noni. But Kaz’s interest in helping her, his supposedly reluctant “reward” for becoming her “hero” and thus a part of her celebrity world, could be fatal to his ambitions. The exhibitionist singer can succeed with notoriety. But “Hero Cop” could write off his political future. Parker (“The Great Debaters,” “Red Tails”) has made “earnest” and shirt-shedding roles a specialty, and he benefits here by us seeing his conflicted character through Noni’s eyes.
Flashbacks show us the painful past that put Noni where she is, and show the authentic voice the young working-class Brit seemingly borrowed from the late jazz and soul chanteuse Nina Simone. And Driver’s stage mom isn’t painted in broad, monstrous colors. She’s just another damaged, needy woman living vicariously through a child who has chances she never had.
The unutterably gorgeous Mbatha-Raw has the best “You had me at hello” eyes in the business and the charisma that has us rooting for her, for love, no matter the role. The real shock here is her musical presence, a voice that could take her into intimate clubs for the rest of her life, or with the right skimpy costumes and sexual choreography, into Nicki Minaj World.
Just like Noni.
She gives life to this old-fashioned/sexually frank romance, totally believable as a woman who might be impressed by the strong man who comes to her rescue, totally acceptable as a flashy-trashy candidate for Super Bowl halftime show. If this sometimes corny romance works “Beyond the Lights,” it’s because the lights are so perfectly pointed at her.
‘Behind the Lights’
Rating: PG-13 for sexual content including suggestive gestures, partial nudity, language and thematic elements
Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nate Parker, Minnie Driver
Written and directed by: Gina Prince-Bythewood