Sadly misses out on being the film it could be.
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood‘s wonderful debut Love & Basketball feels like it was born in the world in which it’s set. Beyond the Lights, sadly, lacks that authenticity. Worse, it seems so set on being the film it thinks it is, it’s oblivious to the film it actually is, and it misses out on being the movie it could be.
The problem with Beyond the Lights overall is typified in the karaoke bar scene.
Pop star Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and hero cop Kaz (Nate Parker) have escaped to Mexico. Noni goes unrecognized in the market, having shed her pop star façade (the scene in which she takes off her wig is stunning – like Love & Basketball, it’s a moment we haven’t seen in a movie like this. Noni looks so different, she could be now being played by another actor entirely).
At karaoke, Kaz sings so horribly he is booed off the stage. Noni (whom, again, the film has established is unrecognizable at this point) takes the stage to sing her original song, a cappella, and the crowd goes wild. Someone captures the moment on their phone, and the video goes viral, which will then give Noni the opportunity to relaunch her music career with her own, authentic voice.
So what’s the problem? Well, there are three: the scene as written doesn’t ring true; the scene as it’s ended up rings true in other, clearly unintended ways; and the film, revolving as it does around the scene as written, seems tone deaf to the scene as it’s ended up being.
Gina Prince-Bythewood has created, seemingly inadvertently, a moment more magical in Kaz’s bombing so spectacularly, than in Noni’s fragile, heartfelt performance.
The scene, as written
In real life, nobody boos bad karaoke singing – more likely, the worse you are, the more you’re applauded (see My Best Friend’s Wedding).
People go to karaoke to sing songs they already know, get rowdy, and generally embarrass themselves; they go to karaoke to cheer on bad singing like Kaz’s, not to sit uncomfortably (or possibly even boo) as someone they don’t know sings a downer of a song they’ve never heard before, much less without a backing track. Karaoke is a party – and some nobody just stomped on its brakes.
The scene, as it’s ended up
Films about fictional musicians rarely get the music part right. We’re told the music this character makes is amazing within the world of the movie, when to us it sounds unremarkable at best, and laughable at worst. Noni’s ‘Blackbird’ song is cringeworthy in both its earnestness and its lyrics. It’s not the transcendent moment the film needs it to be. And while Beyond the Lights falls into the trap most films about fictional musicians do, it could be an opportunity: it should be as embarrassing for Noni, in the film’s world, as it is for us, in the real world. How Noni then deals with that embarrassment, and what she does next, would make a far more interesting – and authentic – story.
The film being tone deaf to the scene
Nate Parker sings badly, yes, but does so just radiating genuine charm – he would absolutely win over everyone in that bar. Gina Prince-Bythewood has created, seemingly inadvertently, a moment more magical in Kaz’s bombing so spectacularly, than in Noni’s fragile, heartfelt performance. Yet she sticks to her original intention, and chooses to see in the scene only what she set out to depict, rather than seeing what she’s actually captured and working with that, perhaps even reworking the scene, in editing or even reshoots of the audience reactions, and rewriting the story from there.
The film is tone deaf to its own world
The film ends with Noni singing an unreleased song onstage at a concert. Again, this doesn’t ring true: even fans go to concerts to hear the songs they already know. Also, she’s just split from her lifelong manager (and mother), Macy Jean (Minnie Driver) – so who is booking these shows? Who is looking after her career? The story is about Noni’s emancipation – and part of that is her vulnerability, having never been allowed or trusted to look after herself. A more interesting story might have followed Noni beginning to navigate her career, and her world, as an independent professional and as her own person. It might have explored the ways her independence, which she found with Kaz’s support, might affect her relationship with him – particularly as he’s made choices about his own career since she came into his life. It’s territory that helped make Love & Basketball so interesting and, again, authentic – qualities sadly lacking here.
Now this is a karaoke scene:
Released in the same year as Beyond the Lights is one of the only films about fictional musicians that gets it right – Frank (2014):