The real problem about making a film centering on an artist is that often you have to show the art. This is problematic in a number of ways: to begin with, unless the protagonist’s craft is writing, the screenwriter crafting the narrative is just not going to be equipped to handle say the narratives of, “songwriting,” or “painting.” The money and the effort of the filmmakers are obviously not put into cracking these creative paths, so the art frequently seems trite or a reduced form of what we experience this type of art to be. But mostly, anytime it is implied in a film that the protagonist is great, the audience really needs to see that, and for the above reasons they can’t. It’s similar to that moment in Garden State where Natalie Portman leans over to Zach Braff and says, “this song will change your life,” before playing him The Shins. And there’s such a large margin of error; a viewer can say, not only did this not change my life, but you’re wrong, and you’re on the record as wrong. This is the problem with Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Beyond the Lights. A tale of a young woman, Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) inching towards stardom, (followed always by her cloying, controlling mother (Minnie Driver)), who attempts to commit suicide in the first ten minutes of the film. A cop guarding her door, Kaz (Nate Parker), ultimately saves her, literally catching her as she begins to fall from her hotel balcony. The rest is history (or cliché if you’re slightly harsher): they fall in love and he tries to pull her out of her toxic celebrity environment. As far as these kinds of movies go, this one is fine. It’s neither recommendable nor anger-inducing. It’s safe.
Beyond the Lights comes close to being political and making a commentary on the nature of the music industry and the celebrity world, as well as, exploring confidence and identity, but it never quite gets there. Noni’s hair is a blonde weave and her hip-hop partner is a stupid white dude, but it never explicitly condemns the white-washing of hip hop. As Noni begins to find her own way of songwriting, her outfits become progressively less scandalous, but there is never any correlation made between her insecurity and the pressure for beauty. And it touches on the music world as a dream for those in financial dire straits but doesn’t go into how sad and unreasonable this is in a bigger sense. But so it goes.Beyond the Lights isn’t bad, it just doesn’t make much of an impression, which is perhaps one of the worst things you can say about a movie, especially one that is making vague stabs at a statement.
Beyond the Lights opens today in Philly area theaters.