You may not know the name Gugu Mbatha-Raw, but by year's end, you should. The English actress dazzles earlier this year in the provocative period piece Belle, in which she played a biracial aristocrat forced to find her place in a world where her name gives her status but her skin color strips it away. Now Mbatha-Raw offers a 180-degree turn in Beyond The Lights, a present-day showbiz pic that has her singing, dancing, and playing a video vixen with the heart of poet. It's a great display of Mbatha-Raw's range, but sadly, it's a mediocre movie.
Written and director by The Secret Life of Bees's Gina Prince-Bythewood, Beyond The Lights plays like a VH1 biopic, full of the kind of saucy sex appeal and subdued scandal that can play on cable any time of the day. Its story begins with a young Noni Jean--like Marilyn Monroe's Norma Jean, get it? She's a biracial British girl with a big voice, raggedy clothes, and a white stage mom (Minnie Driver) who refuses to let the world ignore her baby's talents. After smashing a second-place trophy won at a low-rent kids talent show, the plot cuts to the crotch of grown-up Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) flaunting and pouting in a steamy music video for a tatted-out white rapper (Machine Gun Kelly). She's on the rise.
With her purple weave and eye-catching yet barely there attire, she's a clear parallel of Nicki Minaj or Little Kim (depending on your generation). But despite the fame and fortune, Noni is desperately unhappy. So our inciting incident is a suicide attempt thwarted by a cop who happens to be her bodyguard on this particular night. Kaz Nicols (Nate Parker) has dreams of being a politician, so getting involved with a scandalous pop princess is the last thing his glowering father (Danny Glover) wants him to do. And taking advice from a man who suggests she give up her sex-driven persona for something more personal is the last thing Driver's Momma Rose wants. So: drama.
So much drama. Sadly, most of it is predictable, like Noni's for-publicity white rapper boyfriend causing a very public scene that demands Kaz step out of the literal shadows to protect her. Paparazzi. Enraged record execs. If you've seen any movie about the music business, you've got a good idea where this is going.
Having been elated and driven to tears by Mbatha-Raw's performance in Belle, I was eager to see her in a totally different role. To her credit, she has managed a transformative turn here. In Belle, she is regal and reserved. Here, she's a broken girl hiding her pain behind a veneer of sexy swagger and glamour. The script makes Noni a sloppy cross between Norma Jean, Nicki Minaj and Whitney Houston a la The Bodyguard. But Mbatha-Raw smoothes the seams to create an intriguing character from this pop Frankenstein. Hers is a great performance, or two if you consider the dual faces Noni shows the world and her lover. But she's alone in offering something outstanding here.
Nate Parker seems ever on the rise, and yet never seems to break through to mainstream conversations. It's a shame. He's handsome, and charming. But unfortunately, as Kaz he is given little to do beyond play an uncomplicated boy scout. Similarly, Driver and Glover are wasted in stereotypical roles.
Still, the most grating thing about Beyond the Lights--and what may have well kept it from being great--is its treatment of Noni. Though hers is the story we're introduced to via childhood trauma, the movie abruptly decides to pick up and be about her rescuer instead. This complicated woman who has the world at her fingertips but yearns to embrace her love of songwriting and Nina Simone-style torch songs is shunted to the side so that Kaz can be her knight in shining armor, sweeping her away from her money-grubbing mama, ravenous paparazzi, and soulless record label folk. Mbatha-Raw and Parker share a decent chemistry, but their sizzle isn't intense enough to make up for reducing Noni to a damsel in distress who just needs to be saved by the right man. Equally frustrating is Prince-Bythewood's insistence that Noni's sexual persona is one to scorn, all while the camera leeringly lingers on her curves, booty shorts, and bare skin.
All in all, Beyond the Lights is a movie that promises one thing--the story of a girl who must fight to share the song that lives inside her--but delivers another--a messy romance narrative that plays into the tired trope that even a wildly successful young woman needs a man to save her. It's tedious. It's frustrating. And it's a waste of its talent. But if you want to understand why so many critics and filmmakers are chattering about Gugu Mbatha-Raw, you can't miss it.