Beyond the Lights
seen @ Jamaica Multiplex Cinemas, Jamaica, Queens, NY
The death of British pop singer Amy Winehouse in 2011 didn't really register with me at the time because I barely knew her. I knew the song "Rehab," of course, but I wasn't aware that she was considered a superstar, especially in the UK. And I certainly didn't know how deep her personal problems ran. (The cultural rock I live under is quite comfortable, thank you. It keeps out the rain.)
We know the multiple Grammy-winner had problems with drugs and alcohol. She admitted to also having problems with depression. In that, she was hardly unique among musicians. Her story is all the more tragic, though, because she achieved fame and fortune at such a young age, and for whatever reasons, was ill equipped to cope with it.
One suspects that young women may have it harder: Rihanna, Brittney Spears, and Whitney Houston are only a few recent examples of women musicians whose drama and controversy in their personal lives have generated at least as much attention as their records. Part of it may be the result of all that success so soon in life. Part of it may have to do with the unrealistic expectations of glamor and hyper-sexuality we've come to expect from young women pop stars. Part of it may simply be bad choices, which all of us are guilty of sooner or later.
Beyond the Lights attempts, as its title suggests, to peel back the layer of glitz and find the humanity within one such pop star that rarely gets exposed on Entertainment Tonight or Perez Hilton. An attempted suicide by up-and-coming R&B/hip hop sensation Noni - a sort-of hybrid of Winehouse and Rihanna - is thwarted by a cop. She lies about the incident to the media, which rubs the cop the wrong way, especially when he hopes to use the incident to launch a political career. Still, they form an unlikely romantic relationship over time, which leads to further complications.
Last week, I talked about romantic movies and how the greats of the past were able to use plot obstacles in a way that modern movies either can't or are unwilling to do anymore. The lie Noni tells is the chief obstacle here, and although it doesn't stop her and Kaz, the cop, from being together, it still looms over them and affects their actions. In addition, there's Noni's stage mother, who goes to great lengths to make her daughter a star, but keeps her under her thumb, to a certain degree. These are good examples of obstacles used by a modern movie, and they're pertinent to this kind of story, in which fame and public imagery are crucial to both of the central characters' lives.
I feel about Lights the same way I felt about Enough Said last year and Obvious Child this year: a modern romantic movie that took me by surprise and completely drew me into the story, and was neither condescending nor patronizing. All three movies were written and directed by women; in this case, it was Gina Prince-Bythewood, who also did Love and Basketball (a movie I missed the first time but will definitely look for now). I gotta admit, movies like these are a very welcome response to the naysayers who claim that romance is dead in Hollywood.
It was wonderful to see old favorites Minnie Driver and Danny Glover in Lights, and while male lead Nate Parker didn't bowl me over, he did his job. But I think it's safe to say that this movie should put Gugu Mbatha-Raw over the top and firmly establish her as a star to be reckoned with. Between this and Belle, she's had a dynamite year, and as good as she was in that, she's even better in this. Yes, she does her own singing, and I'd say she's good enough to cut a record.