[Screen It]


(2014) (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nate Parker) (PG-13)

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Drama: A rising pop star thinks she might have found an answer to her unhappiness in the young cop who saved her life.
Noni Jean (GUGU MBATHA-RAW) is a rising young adult star in the pop world thanks to her natural talent as well as the blood, sweat and tears put in by her mother, Macy Jean (MINNIE DRIVER), who works tirelessly to promote her and reinforce her mantra that there's no place for a first runner-up. Yet, despite her success and an arranged business-meets-romantic relationship with rapper Kid Culprit (MACHINE GUN KELLY), Noni isn't happy. One night after an awards show and some celebratory drinking, she nearly takes her own life via a plunge off her hotel balcony. Fortunately for her, LAPD officer Kaz Nicol (NATE PARKER) is on duty outside her door and rushes in to save her.

He isn't star struck by her as he has political ambitions to make his community a better place, much to the delight of his fellow cop father, Capt. David Nicol (DANNY GLOVER). Yet, he isn't pleased when his dad tells him the necessary thing to do regarding Noni's suicide attempt is to go along with the lie that she simply had too much to drink and nearly slipped to her death. While some in the paparazzi don't buy that and press Kaz for the truth, the majority quickly try to make a story connecting the cop and pop star into something more than it is.

Their association soon turns into a relationship, much to the chagrin of David and those trying to position Kaz's political future. As Kaz does his best to free -- if temporarily -- the young star from the pressures and daily grind of her celebrity life, he must contend with the fallout and repercussions of his involvement with her, all while she tries to find her true self once again.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
The vast majority of companies view the vast majority of their employees, and sometimes even their executives, as nothing more than necessary and usually replaceable cogs needed to produce whatever their product might be. There are certain industries, however, where star power and the cult of personality are integral to the success of said offerings.

While you probably can't name anyone other than the CEO of the world's biggest companies, I bet you can identity scores of individuals on your favorite sports team, movie or TV show. Accordingly, the people who own and run such sports and business endeavors have a vested interest in how their name stars are perceived, and they obviously plan on profiting handsomely from that, and rightly so.

Some could say the same holds true for parents who push their kids to excel. After all, they've spent many a sleepless night and plenty of moola on rising them from infants into youngsters and then potential stars. Yet, there's a certain ick factor regarding parents who get so wrapped up in their kid winning that they develop a warped perspective of what's occurring and why. Yes, those are the so-called stage moms, soccer dads and such who seemingly tie their own self worth into the success of their offspring and will push them to do so, no matter the associated costs.

That's part of the underlying theme of "Beyond the Lights," a drama about a rising pop star (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who learned early in life from her single mom (Minnie Driver) that there's no point in being named first runner up. To set the stage and before getting into the meat of the story, the film briefly begins in late 1999s London where Noni is a young girl who sings a splendid version of Nina Simone's "Blackbird." Despite that rendition, she doesn't win and her mom makes her throw away her trophy.

We then fast-forward to present day when that philosophy has resulted in the young woman being the hottest thing in the industry, teamed with her label-arranged rapper boyfriend (Machine Gun Kelly) and with her mom still serving as her business manager. Yet, Noni isn't happy and, after a post show bout of drinking, decides to end it all via a plunge from her hotel balcony railing. Luckily for her, the young officer (Nate Parker) stationed outside her door rushes in, saves her, and suddenly becomes a tabloid sensation as the hero cop.

He has his own parental issues, namely in the form of his fellow cop father (Danny Glover) who's pushing his son to enter the world of politics. Unlike his new pop star "friend," however, he seems eager to do so, although his eventual -- and to be expected -- romantic relationship with her rises more than a few eyebrows from his pop as well as various supporters.

As written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, the nearly two-hour long film pretty much follows the sort of storyline trajectory that most everyone anticipates it likely will. Yet, it doesn't entirely play up the similarities and differences of what's essentially a parallel plot thrust and related thematic material regarding over-involved parents and the impact that has on their kids. Some of that's certainly present, but the Mbatha-Raw-Driver version gets the most meat and time.

It also suffers a bit from the need to drum up some obligatory relationship drama in ways that aren't always completely believable (such as Parker's character suddenly having a dim view of Mbatha-Raw's when she decides to return to work after a little much-needed R & R). With a little more creativity, such conflict could have still been present and gotten the job done, albeit in a different and thus more credible way.

Despite those few issues and otherwise being fairly predictable, the pic features performances and material that are stronger than expected, especially from Mbatha-Raw who shines in her part. After a surprise but not shocking change in appearance for her, she does an impromptu bit of singing during the aforementioned brief break from the whirlwind of her life, and her second performance of "Blackbird" all of these years later is nothing short of stunning in terms of the related raw emotion.

Overall, I liked "Beyond the Lights" more than I imagined I would, especially based on the trailer I saw months before the release. While it's not perfect, the leads are good enough that those running the shop should expect to profit from their work. The film rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed October 30, 2014 / Posted November 14, 2014

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