All words: Rachel Kurzius
While innumerable young girls dream of being a pop star, all of the trappings that seem so appealing can be equally constricting. The glamorous (and barely-there) clothes turn a woman’s body into spectacle and the devoted fans come off as abusive, smacking car windows in an attempt to get close. Beyond the Lights illustrates this suffocation of fame with tight, claustrophobic-feeling shots when the audience first meets Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a singer at the precipice of stardom.
That’s not the only precipice. Within the first few minutes, she tries to jump off a hotel balcony. At this point, Noni has the fancy hotel room, the Billboard Award, and seemingly everything a gal could want. While she doesn’t complain about her situation, those close-up shots tell us how trapped she feels.
Luckily, Kaz (Nate Parker) is working security for her that night. “I see you,” he says. He helps her up as she dangles from the balcony. Those tight shots zoom out for the first time. Kaz lies to the press about the situation, protecting Noni’s secret as she gets ready to release her album. This is because “Noni,” as her mother (Minnie Driver) keeps telling her, must remain a fantasy, and a suicide attempt gets too real. Even at the press conference where they spin their yarn about a night of too-hard partying and an accidental slip, Noni sexualizes herself to distract from paparazzi skepticism.
When Kaz seems disgusted by the whole spectacle, Noni is intrigued. Thank goodness, there’s no drummed up will-they, won’t-they tension. They will. They do. It’s much more fascinating to explore how they do. Kaz essentially becomes a security guard for Noni in the weeks preceding her album release. Through Kaz’s eyes, Noni gets the validation that these ridiculous hoops she must jump through are lined with fire. She can finally see how burned she feels.
And Kaz is no schlub himself. His father (Danny Glover) wants him to run for office. Both of their parents are essentially stage parents, trying to mold their children into archetypes for public consumption. Glover’s actions are far less repugnant than Driver’s, but even if they have different expectations for who their offspring will become, it’s clear that they’re both coming from the same place. They want their kids to exorcise their own regrets and disappointments.
Beyond the Lights, written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (of Love and Basketball), seamlessly incorporates the engines of fame, like cable news (CNN anchor Don Lemon is essentially a supporting actor), social media, and awards shows. When does the mask melt to the face? In a tough-to-watch scene, Noni performs at an awards show with her white rapper boyfriend (Richard Colson Baker, really nailing his sleazeball role). Their relationship is both real, in that they “hit it,” but also drummed up for the media. His public reaction when she dumps him before the performance, in a media environment where we’re finally discussing issues like domestic violence and objectification, should really get people talking.
The love story between Kaz and Noni is reasonably entertaining, but the real relationship here is between Noni and fame as she tries to gain control of a toxic situation.