Writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood‘s Beyond the Lights, starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nate Parker, and Minnie Driver, offers up a familiar and predictable kind of story—despite this, however, many critics have liked it.
David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter, describes the mental health issues at stake:
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.
The trailer for Beyond the Lights:
Noni’s State of Mind
Chris Cabin, Slant: “Much of the blame for Noni’s depression ends up with Macy Jean, who excuses misogynistic photographers to keep Noni on magazine covers. As Macy Jean explains, she was asked to play so many roles on top of mother, including father, manager, agent, and promoter, that business sense overtook maternal extinct. Noni is similarly expected to be a singer, a dancer, a role model, a celebrity, and a sex symbol, all while also beaming with some tinny sense of purity. Beyond the Lights presents a fascinating polemic on maintaining true identity while also crafting a divergent, false face for an unwieldy public…”
Andrew Barker, Variety: “Gauzy fairy-tale elements aside, the pic tackles a number of tough issues with rather admirable directness: the default hyper-sexualization of female musicians, the entertainment industry’s disinterest in the mental health of its prime assets as long as the show goes on, and the way a genuine gesture of humanity can be subtly sullied the moment it becomes a media opportunity.”
Stephanie Zacharek, Village Voice: “Sometimes the most seemingly conventional stories are the best tools for digging into knotty, everyday truths.”
Leah Greenblatt, ew.com: “Both Mbatha-Raw and Parker are appealing, expressive actors, and writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood…lets them breathe, filling in the boilerplate bones of the story with smartly nuanced commentary on race and fame and the relentless negotiations that a young woman—even one without a record deal—has to make in a world that expects her to be everything but herself.”
Andrew Barker, Variety: “’Beyond the Lights’ is a strange beast, a music-industry romance that alternates freely between wisdom and mawkishness, caustic entertainment-biz critique and naive wish fulfillment, heartfelt flourishes and soap-opera shenanigans. Yet…Prince-Bythewood (‘Love and Basketball’) nonetheless manages to fit all the warring elements of her screenplay into an undeniably entertaining, attractive package…”