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Movie Review: 'Beyond the Lights'

By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- Superstars suffer too. Just because they have it all doesn't mean they want it all. Yadda yadda yadda...

(2½ stars out of 4)

Viewers who can get beyond that overly familiar and, more often than not, irritating bit of conventional wisdom about the captivity of fame can sidestep the standard trappings of the genre and relax and enjoy Beyond the Lights, a romantic backstage drama a bit too anchored in its own comfort zone but sparked by two appealing lead performances.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who starred in Belle but hadn't yet shot it (and was thus essentially unknown when she was cast in Beyond the Lights), plays twentysomething Noni Jean, who was a rhythm-and-blues pop star in England and seems to be on her way to superstardom in Hollywood.

Minnie Driver registers vividly and three-dimensionally -– not an easy task -– as Macy Jean, Noni's driven and overbearing mother and manager from South London, who is defined by the question she poses when her daughter seems pleased with a second-place finish in a talent contest:  "Do you want to be a runner-up, or do you want to be a winner?"

Noni is, in a word, miserable.  Who is that woman in the mirror looking back at her, sporting purple hair extensions?

One night -- stressed and depressed by the risqué way she is forced to dress and pose and speak and behave in the name of her persona, tired of being an object of male sexual desire, and even though she has just won a prize on a high-profile, televised awards show -- she is overwhelmed at the inauthenticity of all the packaging, at how synthetic and chauvinistic it all is, and how much she hates what she's doing despite the obvious material rewards.

She literally doesn't know who she is anymore, and it certainly isn't this hypersexualized cover girl whom she portrays during interviews.

The real her has, in a way, disappeared.

So she climbs out onto the penthouse balcony of the swanky Beverly Hills Hotel in which she's staying, intending to jump.

That's when Kaz Nicols, an LAPD officer  (played by Nate Parker) serving as a celebrity-babysitting security guard, takes over and talks her off the ledge, after which he is celebrated in the media circus as a hero.

And as Noni and Kaz come to know each other better, a romance develops, one that immediately seems star-crossed.

Their union troubles both Noni's mother, who feels that such a relationship will not properly feed Noni's public image, and Kaz's father, Capt. David Nicol (played by Danny Glover), who has high hopes that Kaz can embark upon a political career but fears that such a union would be at best a distraction and at worse am embarrassing deal-breaker in Kaz's bid for a seat on the Los Angeles City Council.

The narrative's symmetry -– with both of the young people having to deal with a single parent more or less living vicariously through them –- is perhaps overly schematic, but old pros Driver and Glover sell it as a critical part of the package.

Writer-director Gina Prince-Blythewood, with two strong features behind her (Love & Basketball, The Secret Life of Bees), explores not just wish fulfillment and fame but race and class and female empowerment.

And she's got two rising stars in the key roles -- with Mbatha-Raw doing her own vocals -- who have enough expressiveness, emotional openness, and natural chemistry to convert the narrative's familiarity into a strength rather than a limitation as their characters strive with our blessings to rediscover their true selves and return from their public façades to something at least approaching authenticity.

So we'll perform 2½ stars out of 4.  As life-affirming music-biz melodramas go, Beyond the Lights doesn't even attempt to go beyond the expected clichés.  But at least it gets beneath them in an entertaining way.

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