Thursday, November 13, 2014

A show business cautionary tale

Gugu Mbatha-Raw finds a star vehicle in Beyond the Lights.

Director Gina Prince-Bythewood's Beyond the Lights mistakenly, I think, tries to pack a lot of issues into an essentially small frame: It's a fairy tale romance, a show-business cautionary tale and a look at how black women are marketed and sold by a sexually-obsessed music business.

Beyond the Lights isn't void of entertainment value -- and that may be part of its problem: It misses too many opportunites to dig deeply.

The movie focuses on the career of fictional pop star Noni -- played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, last seen in the historical drama Belle.

A British-born singer, Noni achieved her American breakthrough after teaming with a white American rapper named Kid Culprit (Colson "Machine Gun Kelly" Baker).

Not surprisingly, success hasn't brought Noni happiness. She's alienated from her authentic self, and pushed toward commercialism by her aggressively driven stage mother (Minnie Driver).

The movie sets the parameters of Noni's problem in an economical prologue. A young Noni (India Jean Jacques) participates in a talent contest in which she sings an a cappella version of Nina Simone's Blackbird.

Simone, the jazz singer who died in 2003, can be taken as the antithesis of a show-business sell-out.

An obvious victim of discrimination, Noni nabs second place. Not good enough, says Noni's oblivious white Mom, who -- in a pre-contest scene -- begs a black beautician for help with Noni's hair.

The movie then leaps into the present. Now a celebrity, a despairing Noni -- suffocating under a ton of exploitative packaging -- decides to leap from the balcony of her Los Angeles hotel room.

She's pulled back by a hunky LA cop (Nate Parker), who assures her that he sees past the razzle-dazzle. He knows who she is.

Although both Mbatha-Raw and Parker are compelling actors, I found it difficult to believe in their story-book romance.

Moreover, attempts to parallel Parker's story with Noni's throw the movie off course: He's a cop pushed toward politics by his father (Danny Glover). He, too, needs to reconnect with his real self.

There's also something inherently problematic about Prince-Bythewood's approach. It's not easy to show a hyper-sexualized Noni without feeding off some of the same energy that's being criticized.

Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball) obtains a star-making performance from Mbatha-Raw, but it's tethered to an uninspired romance and to a movie that tries to offer the satisfaction of a familiar story arc along with fresh insights into celebrity, particularly as it concerns black women.

Perhaps because of its fractured ambitions, this movie about the need for Noni to find her real voice doesn't always feel as if it has found one of its own.

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