“Do you want to be a runner up, or do you want to be a winner?”
Gugu Mbatha-Raw may be tearing up the stage in Nell Gwynn at the moment but by rights, she ought to have been dominating cinema screens in last year’s Beyond the Lights, bafflingly sent straight to DVD here after a botched US cinematic release. Quite why this is is beyond me, aside from speculating that those responsible for such decisions thought that it wouldn’t appeal to audiences, presumably because of its perceived innate BAME focus.
But like all great stories, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s film far exceeds the world it depicts, emerging as a hugely affecting modern romance full of sharp commentary about what passes for celebrity in the 21st century. Mbatha-Raw plays Noni, a budding singer winning awards as a featured artist before her first album has even dropped but whose experiences thus far in the music industry lead her to try and take her life. Saved by a policeman, Nate Parker’s Kaz, facing his own pressures from a family who dream of a political career for him, a relationship sparks that forces them to face their mutual demons.
It’s almost old-fashioned in some ways but told so emotionally truthfully, and through a fiercely contemporary lens, that it really succeeds. What is asked of female pop stars to become complicit in their sexual exploitation is thoroughly interrogated here, made fascinatingly more complex by Noni’s manager being her single-parent mother Macy-Jean – a genuinely excellent Minnie Driver – whose determination is rooted in so much more difficulty than simple stereotypical avarice.
But it is the slow-burn sensuality of Mbatha-Raw and Parker that drives the film, Noni and Kaz’s relationship struggling to peel back the layers of record company interference, public artifice and emotional restraint to get to a place where they can just simply be with each other (namely a karaoke bar on a Mexico beach). Their chemistry is palpable throughout and whilst their story may be a tad predictable, it is entirely engaging. Should have been a much bigger hit than it was allowed to be, definitely recommended for a DVD night in.