Seen Saturday November 15th: Beyond the Lights
London-born Noni is a superstar on a rise, with her charisma and sex appeal creating huge buzz in the States ahead of the release of her first album. After what should be one of her proudest moments, she attempts suicide because she can't take being unseen, unheard, and pretending she's someone she's not anymore. Police officer and up-and-coming politician Kaz stops her and tries to convince her that life is worth living. What follows is not only a romantic relationship between the two, but also their respective personal journeys of self-discovery.
"Open Your Heart. Find Your Voice."
What I don't like about this movie: The first half of it is incredibly dull and predictable. Noni as the superstar and damsel in distress behaves exactly as we would expect her to: spoiled, hypersexual, does as she's told and has no problem playing the game until Kaz shows up and makes her feel safe enough to reveal her depth. And Kaz as the hero and love interest behaves exactly as we would expect him to: says all the right things, has integrity but can't help falling for Noni, and always swoops in to save her. Plus, with the exception of the four main actors (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nate Parker, Minnie Driver, and Danny Glover), the acting is less than stellar. Machine Gun Kelly? Big Sean? I understand the need for starpower, but really? This from Gina Prince-Bythewood, the director of the masterpiece that is Love and Basketball? Seriously? I was starting to get really disappointed. But then...
What I really like about this movie: After a huge scandal erupts, Kaz whisks Noni off to Mexico, and from then on it's like you're watching a completely different film. The entire Mexico segment is exquisite. Very minimal dialogue, soft lighting, the beach, and two people expressing their love and seeking recovery and refuge in each other. More than any other part of the film, I believe Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker really show their stuff as actors here. When Noni takes out her tracks to reveal her natural curly hair, we then see Noni Jean the person and singer/songwriter, not Noni the product. And then when she shows her hair to Kaz and he kisses her curls?! Swoon! But they can't stay in paradise for ever, and after they return to the States then you see how the arc of the story really does mirror Love and Basketball. Two people unexpectedly fall in love, form this soul-entwining bond, and have an extremely passionate relationship. But then they have to separate to figure out who they are and what they want in life, meanwhile also dealing with tensions and unresolved issues that they have with their parents. And just when it seems like what they had is over for good, they realize they can't be without each other and reunite to share in each other's most important life moments. Straight out of Love and Basketball's book, and I loved that. Bravo for #blacklove!
Perhaps I'm giving director Prince-Bythewood too much credit, but I've been thinking that she made the first half of the film so shallow, dull, and predictable on purpose to mirror Noni's transformation. At first Noni's world is superficial, miserable, unforgiving, and forced, but then when she decides to find the good in herself and unapologetically be who she really is, then she becomes open, genuine, confident, and better able to love and express herself to others. Maybe this is a stretch, but I'd like to give Prince-Bythewood the benefit of the doubt in this aspect. Overall this is a beautifully engaging and inspiring film about dignity, integrity, the dark side of the music/entertainment industry, and the power in knowing, loving, being, and expressing yourself.
On another note, ever since Belle came out last year I'd been hearing buzz about Gugu Mbatha-Raw and was really looking forward to seeing her peformance for the first time. I was not disappointed! She's absolutely masterful as an actress and has really committed to becoming Noni. I hear she even does her own singing! She gives off some really strong vibes reminiscent of stars like Rihanna, and you can tell that she's done her research and preparation. You almost forget that she's not really a singer or musical entertainer. Speaking of research I'll also give credit to the film for trying to make its entertainment world seem as realistic as possible. The BET Awards part was filmed at the real BET awards. The festival scene at the end of the film includes footage from an actual music festival. Bravo for being thorough!
Lastly, (sorry I know this is getting long) the soundtrack is perfection! My personal favorites are "Lights and Camera" by Yuna, "Fly Before You Fall" by Cynthia Erivo, "Worthy" by Jacob Banks, and "I Am Light" by India.Arie, which isn't officially on the soundtrack but should have been.
Would I recommend it?: Most definitely!