Noni Jean (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) seems to have her career all sorted out, a beautiful, talented singer whose star is on the rise after performing on her boyfriend's last three number one singles, and now she has her own solo material coming out soon, she is set to go stratospheric. But there's a defining moment in her past when she was just starting out that has stayed with her for too long: she had entered a talent competition back in London, where she is from, as ordered by her pushy mother Macy (Minnie Driver). In among the budding Shirley Temple wannabes, Noni truly stood out, singing the Nina Simone song Blackbird, and won second prize - not good enough for Macy, not good at all.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw was in two films directed by black women in the same year, which was regarded a a promising development in the traditionally white male-dominated field in Western cinema, but though Belle was one which awarded her all sorts of accolades in the mainstream, Beyond the Lights was the project that ended up with more of a cult following in comparison. Which in a way was a pity, as you could well envisage it gaining as much wider acceptance as the British film, as director Gina Prince-Bythewood had picked a subject that seemed an obvious choice to make a movie about, but was usually relegated to teen TV projects rather than taking it more sincerely as a serious film.
She assuredly took it seriously here, with the glitz and glamour of the modern music scene thrown into sharp relief by the pressures Noni is seen to be stuck with. That introduction was important as it illustrated she is in this career for the joy of singing, of expressing herself (that's the actress you hear on the soundtrack), but she has that worry about her confidence, and with more social perspective her worth as a woman in showbusiness where in this line of work she is expected to put her sexuality right out there as a commodity. We can tell straight away Noni is struggling with this private life versus public image dilemma when the film has barely started and she is contemplating suicide by throwing herself over her hotel room balcony. Fortunately, she has a knight in shining armour to rescue her.
Well, more a knight in a cop's uniform, as this was not solely her story, for we also follow aspiring community leader Kaz (Nate Parker) who plans to establish himself as a role model then make the move from law enforcement to politics. When he pulls Noni up from nearly falling to her death, she makes him complicit in the lies they tell the press (on Macy's instruction) that she had too much to drink and simply fell, with Officer Kaz in the right place at the right time, but this brings them together, in spite of the pressure his advisors place on him that a politician doesn't need an R & B singer in his life. Of course, he is exactly what she needs and she breaks it off with her boyfriend (rapper Machine Gun Kelly) who then proceeds to almost rape her during a show.
Onstage, that is, which sounds ridiculous until you see it and the director rendered it uneasily convincing, leaving us in no doubt Kaz would be incensed enough to wallop the rapper. It's a key scene, for here Noni finally takes hold of her public life where she has been expected to cavort for the cameras in a highly sexualised manner because she didn't have the wherewithal to take control and say "No". Not every filmmaker would have presented that choice so brazenly, but it was a mark of how thought provoking Beyond the Lights could be, even if Prince-Bythewood did come across as tackling her own issues on a very open arena, whether that be with how her gender are portrayed in the media or her own relationship with her mother (Driver could have been a villain, yet we wholly understand the desperation that forces her on). Parker too was perhaps a little too good to be true, but carried the overabundance of heart to hearts with dependable skill, the central love affair unexpectedly moving, though it was Mbatha-Raw corralling all these threads that impressed most. Music by Mark Isham.