Beyond the Lights
Noni and her single-parent mom, Macy, may not have had much as she was growing up, but they had two things going for them: Noni's voice and Macy's drive. Add those two strengths together with years of hard work and Noni is now on the verge of musical superstardom.
Thanks to several duets with her rapper "boyfriend," Kid Culprit, and a soon-to-break, much-hyped solo album, her face is everywhere. Of course, there's quite a lot of the rest of her out there on display, too. But, well, that's what's expected these days. You wanna be the next Rihanna or Nicki Minaj, well, then you let your fans see plenty of skin.
In truth, though, that slip-something-off-and-give-'em-a-thrill stuff isn't really Noni. But her mother has worked too long, pushed too hard for her to balk at a little tawdry sleaze at this stage in her career. Why, Macy would kill her if a few modest objections ruined all they've worked for.
So behind the provocative outfits, the purple hair and the crude pelvic thrusts, Noni remains secretly miserable. She no longer recognizes herself. She's no longer dazzled by the money and glitz. She no longer cares about much of anything, really.
In fact, Noni's pretty much ready to take a nose dive off the highest rooftop she can find. She guzzles a bottle of champagne in the limo, locks the top-floor penthouse suite's door and staggers toward the gently blowing curtains that mark where her balcony doors are. Just put one leg up on the rail. Then the other. And it's as simple as …
Just as she takes that last fateful tumble into oblivion, though, an off-duty cop on guard duty grabs her by the hand. She tries to wriggle free, but he fights to keep her still. He gazes down at her dangling form, looks her square in the eye and tells her, "I see you. Don't do this. I see you."
From there, the rest is all a jumble. He pulls her up. Her mother is there to guide her into the room and explain away her silly "stumble." And the cop is quickly ushered out with the promise of a sizable check as a reward.
There will be a press conference to go to, of course. Explanations to make for why everyone saw her dangling off that ledge. Tipsy excuses to give. But all Noni wants to do is find that cop again. She needs to know, has to know …
What did he see?
What the cop (his name is Kaz) saw was a frightened and confused young woman in need of help. What he eventually comes to see, however, is that Noni was begging for someone to encourage her to stand up for herself. Kaz does that, suggesting she pull back from the dirty side of the music business that she hates, be honest with her over-controlling mom, and perhaps try recording one of her own songs instead of the junk the label keeps pushing her toward.
"That night with the balcony," Noni later tells Kaz, "you saw the goodness in me and it kept me hanging on 'til I could finally see it in myself. … That fantasy girl went over the balcony and the real Noni Jean got pulled back up."
Kaz, too, gets a few new opportunities after saving Noni. Called a "hero cop" on TV, he decides to run for a local councilman's seat. "I want to be a brother who makes a difference," he earnestly tells a group of potential supporters.
Noni and Kaz fall in love. (How could they not, right?) And though there are a number of other business and relational obstacles they have to overcome, they eventually both sacrifice previous goals to stay true to each other and the things they believe in. "Truth is the only safe ground to stand on," Noni proclaims.
Kaz's father warns him about associating with Noni. "You didn't meet in church," he tells his son. But Kaz retorts, "Church girls are the ones you gotta look out for." Two local pastors consider throwing their political clout behind Kaz.
Noni is a Rihanna-esque songstress who wears any number of (very) revealing and/or see-through outfits in bump-'n'-grind, slap-your-backside-and-grab-your-crotch stage performances. Even when offstage or away from the public eye, she's often in very brief short shorts and tube or crop tops. A magazine photo shoot has her strip down to only panties and a well-placed arm. Throughout, the film's camera examines her closely, leaving very little to the imagination.
At a party, Noni twerks on Kid Culprit and kisses him. During a stage performance, Kid tries pulling off Noni's clothes and roughly forces her into several mimed sex acts—including oral sex and rape.
Kaz strips off his shirt to reveal his chiseled torso. He and Noni spend much of three days naked in bed together having sex as often as possible, draped strategically in sheets. Noni once blindfolds Kaz, climbs up on his lap, opens his fly (off camera) and has sex with him.
As discussed, Noni attempts suicide by trying to tumble off the top of a building. When Kid Culprit gets mad on stage he manhandles Noni and slaps her down. Kaz then runs up and punches the rapper in the face. While on his beat, Kaz is called in for a domestic abuse case. He cuffs and pulls away a man who had bloodied his wife's lip. Later that man pulls a gun, blasts a bullet into the wall near Kaz's head and shoots him in the leg. Noni smashes a large framed poster, cutting her hand on the broken glass.
Crude or Profane Language
One f-word and about a dozen s-words are joined by a handful of uses each of "d--n," "a--," "b--ch," "h---" and "bloody." God's name is misused a few times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
A number of parties feature pretty people guzzling hard liquor and champagne. We see Noni get drunk once. (Usually she refrains from drinking.) Kaz downs several beers, his father joining him at one point. Karaoke singers sip margaritas.
Other Negative Elements
Kaz is pressured to sacrifice his values on the altar of political power. In full "stage mom" mode, Macy angrily makes Noni smash a singing competition trophy because it's only for second place. "You wanna be runner-up or you wanna be a winner?" Macy demands.
A talented singer with a heart of gold is beaten and battered by the corruption of the music biz … and eventually saved by love.
That's a fairly recognizable cinematic logline. And in the case of Beyond the Lights it's a colorful cliché packaged as something of a music-industry soap opera with a hip-hop/rap flourish.
That's not to say this soapy trope doesn't have some good things going for it. The story may be familiar, but it's played well here. And much of the credit for that goes to the believability of star Gugu Mbatha-Raw (who some might recognize as the very talented lead from the acclaimed period piece Belle).
Mbatha-Raw is able to play a convincingly hard-edged, sexual come-on of a music star while at the same time helping us still see the fragile put-upon girl who's down deep crying out for help. And the film does a good job of pointing out just how morally corrosive the choices people make for fame can be.
All of that said, however, just sitting through this pic can be a little morally corrosive. The camera makes sure audiences get multiple, up-close examinations of the shapely lead's clothed and unclothed body. And when her level-headed love interest steps in to flex his heavily muscled torso and help her through the rough patches, it's automatically taken for granted that most of that one-on-one counselling will (naturally!) take place while the two are naked and beneath the nearest tousled sheet.
So is this a girl-empowering music-biz exposé, an impassioned Nicolas Sparks-style romance or a heavy-breathing leerapalooza? Well, let's just say you get an eyeful of all three.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Noni; Minnie Driver as Macy Jean; Nate Parker as Kaz; Danny Glover as Captain Nicol
November 14, 2014
February 24, 2015