The pressures of fame have superstar singer Noni on the edge, until she meets Kaz, a young cop who works to help her find the courage to develop her own voice and break free to become the artist she was meant to be.
Romance ignites between a troubled young singer on the cusp of stardom, and a handsome young cop with political ambitions in this drama about the power of walking your own path. Noni Jean (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is a talented singer whose ethereal voice has taken the world of music by storm. A glimpse beneath the surface, however, reveals a girl who's cracking under the pressure to top the charts. When Noni tries to end it all, concerned cop Kaz Nicol (Nate Parker) pulls her back from the ledge, and shows her that life is still worth living. Along the way, Noni and Kaz fall head over heels in love. Meanwhile, the powers that be conspire to keep them apart as well as focused on their respective careers. But without Kaz's love, Noni may never find her true voice..
First, let's get this right – very few of use writing reviews really know what it's like when the stars are off stage. We can take any number of movies or TV shows/episodes or magazine articles or books and try and extrapolate, but we don't really know. Anything we watch, like this movie, is still truncated fantasy. So I will not speak of how realistic this movie is about being off stage.
Ultimately, this movie is a love story, and for those of you who have seen Begin Again, there will be some familiarities, even down to some of the movements and looks from Kiera Knightly mimicked by Gugu Mbatha-Raw. But, this is a different, more complex story, and comparisons are certainly unjust. Within this movie, there are issues of sexual expression and exploitation in the entertainment industry. There are issues of domestic violence (two aspects), interracial relationships (two), parent-child relationships (two), the inability to hide from fame (different aspects), and, of course, the drama surrounding two people entering a relationship. (This is another issue not mentioned here that is a major theme/component to the movie, but not in IMDb description. It is probably mentioned in other reviews, but this is a non-spoiler review.)
With so many different aspects, not to mention that Nate Parker plays a Black police officer in the LAPD, it is difficult to deal with any one in any depth. But Gina Prince-Bythewood does quite well at addressing them (though I wish she would have delved into the race issues more) with a bit more than surface tension. None of them do get the depth they deserve, but this happens with stories that try to address different issues. Whatever the critique, none of the issues disrupt the story, and with one or two exceptions, are not really overly dramatized.
As for the performances, we must pay attention to Gugu Mbatha-Raw. As she did in Belle, with a quality cast, here she performs with excellence, most notably playing many scenes with Minnie Driver. Her performance had depth that feels natural in its entirety, in a way that her co-star, Nate Parker (also good), was not quite as natural. Minnie Driver is who she is, and when she is damning, she is a force. Here she is somewhat restrained by the role, but when she released, she is lets fly, both subtly and with force. The other major actor is Danny Glover, who has been able to find his place with supporting actor roles as he ages. And here, he does very well, at times, seeming to push Nate Parker along.
While I would have liked this movie to delve into the exploitation aspect, and even do some examination of the race issue in music, particularly Black, female performers, there were lots of in- betweens and unspokens mixed with movements and expressions, mostly by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, that lets us know that any greater exploration of these (or others mentioned above) would take this movie close to the 3 hour mark. As is, at nearly 2 hours, it flowed well that it didn't seem like 2 hours. And even though the love story aspect is filled with clichés, those clichés are mixed with in with other, more complex aspects. Even the most glaring cliché for me – the road trip – was obvious in many, many ways, the craft of the direction and craft acting made it easy to forgive, and easy to forgive all the other love story clichés.
Recommended, mostly for a quiet evening. If one has kids, especially young or middle teens, this is worth watching with them and having discussions about exploitation of females (not just in visual entertainment, as this movie does show).
One final note that will be missed by most – sorry people – White reviewers, is the issue with Black females and self-identity. There are several moments in this film that address it, and as a White reviewer, I can only speak of it because I work in a predominantly Black community and discuss such issues. But, again, as it was there and easily missed speaks to the craft of the movie. More power to Misses Prince-Bythewood and Mbatha-Raw.
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