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Movie Review

Familiar notes in ‘Beyond the Lights’

“Beyond the Lights” stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw (right) as a British singer and Minnie Driver as her mother.Suzanne Tenner

Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner’s “The Bodyguard” goes hip-hop in “Beyond the Lights,” a simultaneously contemporary and well-worn backstage drama from filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood (“The Secret Life of Bees”). Actually, melodrama is really more like it, as the movie has a soapy impulse that it would have done well to resist, given the occasional surprising strength of its more unvarnished elements.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw (the costume drama “Belle”) plays British singer Noni, a rising star first introduced in flashback as a cutely bespectacled junior talent show contestant (India Jean-Jacques). The kid takes home runner-up for a killer rendition of jazz notable Nina Simone’s “Blackbird,” but her struggling, hard-driving mum (Minnie Driver) knows that’s not good enough for their ticket out — and she tells her so, in the first of various overdone moments. An effectively jarring cut skips ahead to show us little Noni all grown up, brazenly grinding away with sub-Eminem rapper Kid Culprit (Colson Baker, a.k.a. MGK) in a video that’s the toast of the Billboard Awards. Our girl is so fulfilled, so happy, she promptly tries to throw herself off a penthouse balcony, only to be saved by Kaz (Nate Parker, “The Great Debaters”), a quietly hunky LAPD cop working her security detail.


Kaz gets some instant schooling on the mechanics of fame when he’s pulled into a press conference lie that Noni’s cry for help was just a drunken stumble. He’s turned off, but also turned on, for reasons that have everything to do with the goodness he sees in her, and nothing to do with her celebrity. (Well, OK, maybe a little to do with that video-showcased booty.) Soon, they’re canoodling, wrestling with doubts about her fidelity and his trustworthiness around tabloids, and ultimately running away from it all down in Baja for a spell. But can they make it work once it’s back to reality?

Mbatha-Raw has some scenes during her Mexican idyll that charmingly recall “Notting Hill,” with Noni’s brittle wariness melting away as anonymity and Kaz’s steady reassurance soothe her. There are also dramatized echoes of Katy Perry’s documentary “Part of Me,” from the need for escape to a touching bit involving Noni’s purple tresses. At the noisier end of the scale, there’s power in a steamy awards show performance that ends with Noni rightfully feeling violated by skuzzy Culprit, a potentially over-the-top moment that’s instead darkly plausible. And Driver, while severe, hits an unanticipated note or two.


Unfortunately, as the story builds toward tenderness, it’s undercut with slathering tongues and bare-chested stud-muffin shots. Parker is buff, sure, but Prince-Bythewood doesn’t do his credibility any favors. You’ll wish she didn’t have such a nagging tendency to mix elements ripped from romance novels with the stuff she’s ripping from entertainment headlines.

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Tom Russo can be reached at trusso2222@gmail.com.