Saturday, November 15, 2014

Movie Review: Beyond the Lights

Beyond the Lights. Top to bottom, my kind of film. All I needed to see was that Gina Prince-Bythewood directed and wrote this movie, and I knew I couldn't go wrong. She was a writer on A Different World and Felicity (two of my favourite "childhood" television programs), and of course, she is responsible for the film I watch at least twice a year since it came out in 2000, Love and Basketball.

There is a simplicity to Ms. Prince-Bythewood's stories; she always creates characters that speak to me. There is a cultural reflection that is always subtle, but definitely strong in impact. I am admittedly biased...I love (and prefer) to watch a "Black" film with Black characters, and Black writers. It is something inherent in me that I can not change. And as a story writer myself, I am moved by tales that are representative of my generational experience, whether in print, on television, or on the big screen.

It happened in Love and Basketball when Monica and Quincy were at the high school dance, jamming to Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock, and then going off to college and living in the social climate that was personal and familiar to me as a viewer. It happens in Mara Brock Akil's television work as well (Girlfriends, The Game, Being Mary Jane). It is the images, and the surrounding soundtracks to screenplays like Beyond the Lights that document even the most commonplace and ordinary cultural occurrences...powerfully.

I admittedly wasn't prepared for a "love story". I thought this movie would be about the fast life, wild party scenes, and Hollywood fanfare that we are accustomed to hearing about. I watch TMZ and E! News regularly...I scroll through Instagram and Twitter, read blogs and consume products, and like to believe that I have my digital fingers on the pace of pop culture and urban entertainment.

So to get an up-close-and-personal glimpse at this behind-the-scenes love affair with Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Kaz (Nate Parker) was endearing. She started off in the film with full confidence, beauty, sex appeal, and all of the glitz and glamour that we imagine a Rihanna, Beyonce, or even a Britney, or Lady Gaga having. Being on top of the world with all eyes on them, admirers everywhere, and all of the perks and access a young woman could dream of.

But Noni's strength was quickly depleted when her suicide attempt was essentially the opening scene of the film. Again, I didn't realize the story was going to look at the dark side of fame, but I realized that I was in for a sombre look at stardom, and I was hoping that the reality of it would be very clear.

The connection between both Noni and Kaz--in the midst of Noni's dramatic incident...and in the midst of Kaz's own life-changing situation, as his father (played by the great Danny Glover) consistently encourages him to pursue a life in politics--was well depicted. Again, there was a simplicity to the love story, and a real naturalness to how and why the characters connected that it didn't matter that Noni was a superstar, or that Kaz came from a circle of dignitaries that shunned her image.

Perhaps it was their differences that made their connection so sweet...and perhaps it was because they were both striving to live up to the aspirations of their parents, while still just trying to navigate daily life on their own accord. Noni's mother (played by Minnie Driver...who I have adored ever since her role in Good Will Hunting and her hilarious guest appearances on Will & Grace) was a typical stage mom, trying her best to help her child achieve greatness, while sometimes compromising her integrity in the process.

Reminiscent of Kris Jenner, of the Kim Kardashians of our day...hell, and even of Brandy and her mother back in the 90s, these are characters and caricatures that we are all familiar with, as a result of pop cultural norms. Even in the unfamiliar world of pop stardom that few of us will ever actually live/achieve...there is a familiarity in the story behind the face, and the actions that drive the machine. We have seen the end results numerous times...but we rarely get the true, tabloid-free story.

Outlining Noni's journey towards self-love, self-understanding, and essentially her mission to find her voice amidst the politics and agenda setting around her, this movie really and truly is just a beautiful love story, set to an interesting backdrop of the exciting world of entertainment. A love story between a starlet and a police officer, and a love story between a single mother and her talented daughter.

This movie didn't try too hard, or present any images or situations that would be unbelievable in today's media climate. It felt like Noni was the face of many singers we have seen come, and go, and get destroyed by the industry, and rise up again. It felt like Kaz was a brother we all know, humble and well-intended, who falls hard and loves deep. And Macy Jean...she was the mother that exists in all mothers: wanting the best for her child, and sometimes not knowing where to draw the line between support and control.

Needless to say, in the end, all situations resolve themselves comfortably, without cliche and without disappointment. There's just enough humour, enough lust, enough seduction, and enough emotion to make the movie keep your attention throughout, and still lead you through the plot with a few surprises, and without seeming predictable or cliche-ridden.

Gina Prince-Bythewood is an expert at capturing a moment in time, telling a tale to the backdrop of a perfect soundtrack (oooh, I need to get my hands on THIS's full of soul and vibes), and in conveying messages of strength, of self-respect, and restoring faith in human relations and love. Regardless of the race of the characters...they are great stories, in general.

I had to see this movie right away (it was just released yesterday, November 14, 2014), and I'm pretty sure I'm going to watch it again in the next couple of weeks, AND I'm going to eventually add this DVD to my collection, and sit it right next to my all time faves Love & Basketball and Brown Sugar. I will watch it dozens more times in the future, for sure. As simple as it is, this is definitely the type of story that drives me to write MY stories, and I left the theatre today feeling great about the power of a fabulous narrative. The inspiration alone was all I could have asked for, and then some.

Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's Urban Toronto Tales blog.

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