Wednesday, 5 August 2015
On DVD: "Beyond the Lights"
There's long been talk within Hollywood circles of redoing A Star is Born, that romantic showbiz perennial: at the last shout, we were due a 21st century update with Clint Eastwood directing Beyoncé, which would have been... interesting. With Beyond the Lights, the writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball, The Secret Life of Bees) attempts something more personal - and critical - within the same milieu. This is, yes, a romance that plays out in the public eye, where any sincere declaration of feeling risks being drowned out by the shouts of shutterbugs, but it also manages to maintain a pleasing scepticism about L.A. life and the business of show, which you suspect comes only too easily to a director who's signed off on just the three features since the millennium: it concludes not with a star being born - and thus becoming more fodder for a system that's grown only glitchier since the days of Judy Garland - but with a young woman's liberation.
The meeting that enables this progression is pure chance. Kaz (Nate Parker), a young beat cop, is filling in for a colleague on a hotel security detail when his depressive pop star charge Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), under the influence of drink and medication, elects to jump off a balcony. Pulling her up from the abyss, presented with one of the most desirable women on the planet - and whether in red-carpet outfits or simply grey sweatpants, Belle's Mbatha-Raw does a pretty fair approximation of same - Kaz promptly falls for her in turn; whether their relationship can survive the swallow-'em-and-spit-'em-out relentlessness of the 24-hour rolling news cycle is what remains to be seen - and where Prince-Bythewood most explicitly updates the Star template is in her presentation of a culture where we expect our show people to be "on" (singing, dancing, laughing, Tweeting) at all times.
This director is particularly attuned to both the ways of this world - the media coverage of Noni's rise and fall is, for once, unusually accurate to look at and listen to - and a young woman's sorry place within it: when we first see the singer, she's providing additional vocals for a doltish white rapper (as did Rita Ora, Ke$ha and Rihanna before her), biding her time until her label decides she's enough of a commodity to be marketed in her own right. Some of Prince-Bythewood's research has to have gone on what it is when your job is simply to be famous: there's a strong sense of the (in every sense) downtime of Noni's existence, when the vocals for her latest release have been laid down, and there's apparently nothing to do save make public appearances, set foot in front of a camera, any camera. (The contrast with Kaz's life-or-death day job could hardly be more striking.)
This veneer of California realism both grounds what could have been a glossy romance and elevates the stakes: we're constantly aware these are very different worlds colliding - law and order, and one that makes its own rules - and that this relationship surely can't go any further than a very sexy hook-up. (In its set-up, Lights feels like an amplification of what Prince-Bythewood was trying out as far back as Love & Basketball: a one-on-one between characters moving at different speeds in different circles.) Time and again, the pair's chemistry starts to falter: when Noni learns Kaz has accepted a business card from the National Inquirer reporter working the suicide angle, upon the discovery of Noni's label-engineered trysts with that rapper, and then again after an onstage awards ceremony punch-up - and I mean to pay the authenticity of this scene the highest compliment in saying it reminded me of Phillip Schofield's contretemps with Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine at the Smash Hits Poll Winners' Party of 1991. A movie can't feel contrived when the details ring this true.
Away from these ructions, the film catches subtleties of mood and movement; Prince-Bythewood has a real eye for way her leads mirror and impact upon one another. Just as Noni's being thrust into the spotlight by her fearsome showbiz mother (Minnie Driver, channelling Sharon Osbourne and Kris Jenner, and reminding us of her tremendous, under-acknowledged wit), so too Kaz is being pushed, somewhat reluctantly you sense, towards a career in political office by his captain father (Danny Glover), and there's something positive in the way the film strives to position its characters as potential role models without tying bows and labels around their necks. For Kaz and Noni remain, on some level, a boy and a girl: he gives her security and a growing confidence in who she is, her career, her body, her voice, while she opens his eyes and loosens him up. As relationship dramas go, you could say the whole film offers something to aspire to.
So: a studio movie where the pleasure, and the surprise, lies in the fact it works on a stage recent showbusiness movies have had no particular feel for, and have frequently made a terrible mess on. That Universal elected to banish Beyond the Lights to DVD in the UK - while leaving the unappealing fratboys of Search Party and Luke Evans's wan non-Dracula to run around predominantly empty multiplex screens - suggests once again that our overburdened distribution system is, if not entirely beyond saving, then guilty of massively underestimating the desires of the very consumer base it's meant to be serving; and if you wanted to categorise BTL as a romance of colour - and I don't believe Prince-Bythewood would - that it's becoming openly dismissive of certain sectors within that base. The scepticism present in Beyond the Lights around the corporate framework keeping its heroine from true happiness would suggest that Prince-Bythewood is as aware as anyone of this - which makes her film such a salutary flag to rally around in the fight for better mass entertainment.
Beyond the Lights is available on DVD through Universal.