"It seems as though Jessie J has been thrust into the spotlight without any warning," Matthew Perpetua writes in his crushing Pitchfork review of Jessie J's 2011 album Who You Are. "There's an uncomfortable inevitability about her sudden stardom." These days, new pop stars seem to enter the musical landscape out of nowhere, some of them a breath of fresh air (Lorde, Charli XCX) and some of them almost uncomfortably manufactured (Rita Ora, and ahem, Jessie J). If you land a verse on some nameless rapper's hit or Dr. Luke likes your stuff, you may as well say goodbye to humanity and welcome the burgeoning effects of becoming a pop culture product.
Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), unfortunately, falls under the manufactured category. She's an echo of Rihanna's easily identifiable persona, but without the personality and the individuality to match. Regardless, her album is about to drop, and industry experts are saying that first-week sales will set records. But all the press, all the attention, isn't what she wants. She's sick and tired of her life even though it has hardly even begun. In just the first few minutes of Beyond the Lights, we find her sitting on a top-story balcony ledge, contemplating whether she should jump or not.
When we first meet her, she is just a little girl, awkward and entering in a local singing competition. All the other girls look like Dance Moms knockoffs, crappily dancing to crappy songs in crappy costumes. But Noni, in her outdated glasses and elementary school clothes, sings Nina Simone's "Blackbird" a cappella. We get chills, but she finds herself in the shoes of the runner-up. She turns to her mother (Minnie Driver), sitting in the audience: anger is evident in her eyes.
Jump about 16 years into the future, she's the cover model for Complex and other assorted music magazines. As far as we know, Noni's mother has been pushing her to be the next Whitney while Noni passively goes along with it, secretly desiring to be a sort of Erykah for the next generation. The result should be some Mommie Dearest and Gypsy combination, but strange things have happened to Beyond the Lights. For its been-there-done-that storyline, it is lucky enough to have a talented director at its front and a well-versed screenplay to make its melancholy real. There are so many things it should be, things you expect to be, one of them being cheesy, for starters. But Beyond the Lights genuinely moved me. It is not a satire of the music industry but a character study of a young woman who has never been able to find herself because she's been told what to say and think for so long.
The film eventually goes into The Bodyguard territory (Noni falls for her soft-spoken hotel room guard), but it never loses its footing. For a film surrounded by such a materialistic world, it's surprising emotionally rounded. Mbatha-Raw gives such a terrific performance that we feel as though we really do know Noni, better than her mother and better than the industry. There isn't a second we don't understand the hurt lingering in her eyes. She doesn't know what she wants, but she certainly doesn't want this.
There's a scene in which Noni holds a press conference regarding what the paparazzi are calling a suicide attempt. It was a suicide attempt, and she needs help, but with the pressure of her mother and the record company watching her every move, she has to put on a dinky routine that characterizes her as a ditz who sits on ledges when she wears five-inch heels and has a few too many drinks. Mbatha-Raw is so convincing that we begin to wonder if how much we know about our beloved pop stars is actually something they wanted to share. What's hiding behind their Twitter feeds that bear more emojis than thoughts of authenticity?
The climax of Beyond the Lights finds Noni shedding her purple weave and hazardously gleaming plastic nails in trade of her natural hair and a clean face. Though the scene is played silently, the emotional power comes with the consuming nature of a tidal wave. It's the first moment in Noni's life that she's had control over her looks. In truth, though, Beyond the Lights is a storm of deeply felt feelings, and we can't help but feel something too. The ending may be too forced for my taste (Noni graces a small stage at a music festival and becomes Corinne Bailey Rae when I would have preferred a more interesting Kelela type), but the film is startlingly good, cruelly overlooked when it shouldn't have been.
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