Beyond the Lights (2014)
Dir: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Academy Award Nomination: Original Song.
What’s remarkable about this Oscar-nominated film is how completely unremarkable it ends up being, save the one award-worthy inclusion of a song by legendary songwriter Diane Warren.
Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is a rapidly rising star in the music industry, having featured on three hit singles, she’s poised to release her debut album that’s tipped to be huge, but she’s not happy. Saved from a suicide attempt by a young police officer, Kaz (Nate Parker), the two become close and fall in love. However, their different lives and personal ambitions threaten to tear them apart.
Phrases are used such as ‘living the fairytale’, and a mention of living ‘happy ever after’, that really reinforce the films idea that it is a modern-day fairytale. Noni is a celebrity, Kaz is not famous but he is made out to be somewhat of a hero, there’s a troublesome parent (Minnie Driver) and even baddies in the forms of a rapper and record executives. This fairytale however is such a far-fetched dream that while being set in the real world with characters who individually could be believable, the whole story bringing them together undermines any serious points the film is attempting to make.
It really does want to make a lot of serious points too! Produced in association with BET (Black Entertainment Television), there’s obviously going to be a strong theme of race. This is clear right from the opening in London with young Noni’s hair needing help from a black hairdresser as her mother is white and doesn’t know what to do with it. Kaz wants to be the 2nd black president of the United states and there’s a book about Obama clearly shown on his shelf. At one point he even refers to Martin Luther King when defending his political aspirations, but then says he’s not actually comparing himself to Luther King. He’s also shown wearing a Muhammad Ali t-shirt for a while, bringing yet another famous black figure to mind, and doing so very deliberately. I think it’s trying to portray him in particular as an aspirational figure, a bit of a hero in his job as a police officer, who goes from protecting women against domestic violence in his day job, then defending his girlfriend from a misogynistic (and douchey) rapper in his spare time, while also actively working towards to occupying the White House.
The film also tries to bring in criticism of the music industry, and the perils of twitter criticism and press intrusion regarding Noni’s suicide attempt. That aspect in itself means the film should at least attempt to deal with the issue of depression, which comes in this case as a result of rapid fame and celebrity status paired with problems linked to her mother. Really though there are too many of these issues and ideas almost carelessly evoked or thrown in, it doesn’t really delve into them enough, and certainly doesn’t pick just one or two and explore them deeply.
Part of this may be the complexities of the leads, and while it’s good to see fully developed characters, there’s just too much going on with both of them. Noni feels like a poor imitation of Rihanna, and so much of her story feels false. Certainly it must be true that celebrities are people too, and that they have depths that are not know to their fans but only to closest friends and family, but the film seems to just pick the most superficial way of conveying that. For me, the dialogue didn’t all ring true. It’s very much a TV movie with all that goes along with that, the scenarios and conversations feel so much better suited for television and something you would enjoy in that medium, but as a cinematic movie, it comes up short. The romantic leads spend a little time together in Mexico, and that part of the film works a fair bit better than the rest, when they’re stripped back and focused on being themselves. However then we go back to the rest of their lives, and there’s a stereotypical confrontation with record executives that I could have dubbed with the sound off, and a TV interview that’s meant to be a key moment of honesty and poignancy, but just feels forced and oversincere.
Music is a main part of the story, and features quite heavily. Thankfully this provides one element I can really praise, that of Gugu Mbatha-Raw doing her own singing, and she sings very well indeed. Sadly though it’s not her performing the track that has been Oscar nominated, ‘Grateful’, that goes to Rita Ora. The song was written by Diane Warren, gaining her a seventh Academy Award nomination, though she’s never won, and I don’t expect that will change this year. No matter how good the song may be on its own, at the Academy Awards it helps if the film surrounding it is actually something special too.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw recently presented an award at the BAFTAs, and either she was still channelling the early stages of her character in this, or she hadn’t been paid enough yet to go out and buy a brassiere! I’ve heard such wonderful things about her performance in ‘Belle’ that I’m looking forward to seeing soon, but her appearance at those awards was memorable for certain distractions that even Noni was careful to avoid on camera. Sadly, even that was more remarkable that this film. It’s not terrible, it’s just so ordinary and full of overused ideas that it completely fails to add anything to or distinguish itself from. The song may be ‘Grateful’ but I found nothing to be grateful for here, it’s a fairytale that’s living the ‘Oscar Nominated’ dream, yet it feels like a complete fantasy that I just couldn’t believe in.