There’s something compellingly kitchen-sink about the opening scenes of Gina Prince-Bythewood’s music world melodrama, as U.K. stage mom Macy (Minnie Driver) frenetically shuttles her daughter, Noni (India Jean-Jacques), from the hairdresser to a local talent show. The gifted young girl takes runner-up for her stirring rendition of Nina Simone’s “Blackbird,” but Macy isn’t having it and demands Noni toss her trophy to the ground. Her kid can only ever be the best. Nothing less will do.
This section has an admirable grit and genuineness, especially in the way the restless hand-held camera complements both mother and child’s individual anxieties. The mood is almost immediately, and intentionally, undermined when the film suddenly cuts to a music video in which the grown-up Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is gyrating alongside bad boy rapper Kid Culprit (Richard Colson Baker, a.k.a. Machine Gun Kelly). It’s now several years after her second place showing, and Noni is a pop diva (purple-dyed weave and all) on the verge of blowing up. But success is more devil than angel; returning to her Hollywood hotel after the latest soul-sucking awards show, she climbs over the balcony banister, ready to jump. Only by the grace, and good grip, of moonlighting police officer Kaz (Nate Parker) does she get to live another day. “I see you,” Kaz says with the kind of empathy and emotion Noni’s life has been sorely lacking. Then he pulls her to safety. It must be love.
How easy it would be for Beyond The Lights to turn fully bathetic, and how wonderful that it mostly maintains the promise of that opening section. Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball) does a beautiful job sketching in both Noni and Kaz’s antithetical milieus: her stifling affluence—with its many sycophants, paparazzi, and exploiters of all stripes—versus his modest blue-collar existence, which is governed by a father (Danny Glover) who wants to see his son parlay his pillar-of-the-community aura into a political career. (“She’s not first lady material,” he says to Kaz, when it’s clear he’s falling for Noni—as if that’ll stop them.)
A star-crossed love story is only as good as its Romeo and Juliet. Both Parker and Mbatha-Raw have a sweet, smoldering chemistry that’s a joy to witness, especially after they run off together for a rejuvenating sojourn in Mexico. (It’s there that the movie’s best scene occurs, as Noni sings an a cappella solo in front of a rapt karaoke bar audience—a moving act of defiance, reclamation, and empowerment.) This is feel-good populist entertainment at heart, so there’s an element of wish fulfillment to how the duo’s romance plays out that Prince-Bythewood isn’t entirely able to sell. She nonetheless works hard to complicate characters—especially Driver’s overbearing Macy, who in a lesser movie would be a hissing demon. And she unearths plenty of emotional truths that ring resoundingly true, notably in regard to the way much of the music industry sells debased and debauched images of women for maximum profit.