Beyond the Lights is the story of Noni, the music world’s latest superstar. But not all is what it seems, and the pressures of fame have Noni on the edge – until she meets Kaz Nicol, a young cop and aspiring politician who’s been assigned to her detail. Drawn to each other, Noni and Kaz fall fast and hard, despite the protests of those around them who urge them to put their career ambitions ahead of their romance. But it is ultimately Kaz’s love that gives Noni the courage to find her own voice and break free to become the artist she was meant to be.
On the surface, it may be tempting to dismiss Beyond the Lights as a simple melodrama pairing an entertainer with someone outside of her world. In reality, though, the film manages to not only successfully present such a pairing, but also add in pointed feminist and racial issues into the mix.
The entertainer in question is Noni, a young girl who’s been pushed since childhood by her mother to become a huge star. That push has taken Noni from being a young girl with a powerful voice who was overlooked for more conventionally beautiful girls in talent contests, to a young woman whose career consists of being a scantily-dressed hook girl for her labelmate/press-ready boyfriend Kid Culprit.
After winning a Billboard Music Award for her successful singles, prior to the release of a proper album, Noni attempts suicide – only to be saved by Kaz, a police officer with political aspirations. The two are drawn to each other, as such setups require, even though their budding relationship threatens both of their plans for success.
While the setup isn’t new, writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood gives it a distinctive spin that focuses on the specifics of Noni and Kaz’s individual worlds. For Noni, it’s the state of the entertainment industry in a world of 24/7 social media and celebrity obsession. Other films have touched on the subject, but rarely with the precision and accuracy that Prince-Bythewood shows here. She’s aided by Mbatha-Raw’s searing performance, which often conveys an entire backstory with a look. She’s a micromanaged pop star whose greatest source of agony is her controlling mother, played by Driver with a nuance that makes her more fleshed out than what would in most films be a stock, two-dimensional character.
As her relationship with Kaz begins to bloom, Noni begins to become more comfortable asserting herself, resulting in several confrontations which are unsettling but believable. One particular confrontation on-stage at the BET Awards seems horrific and unbelievable, until you start to think about similarly horrific situations endured by pop stars like Britney Spears and Rihanna in recent years.
While not as pronounced as the feminist issues raised by Noni’s storyline, certain racial issues are introduced through Kaz’s storyline. As the son of a high-profile police captain, Kaz is being pushed into running for political office, and seeing Kaz navigate the tricky world of politics in the black community, where religion and references to civil rights leaders come into play, show the expectations placed on young, intelligent black men in today’s society.
On its surface, Beyond the Lights fits as a melodrama. Unlike most films in this genre, though, the film includes concepts that challenge its audience. It’s a superior take on the genre, and a form that more films should take.