Review: ‘Beyond the Lights’ is a romance that asks, ‘Can this celebrity be saved?’ |
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Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nate Parker in 'Beyond the Lights'

“Beyond the Lights” is another pain-behind-the-music romance. But it’s so well-written, cast and played that we lose ourselves in the comfort-food familiarity of it all. This hip-hop era “Bodyguard” has heart and soul, thanks to stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Minnie Driver and Nate Parker. Simple as it is, it simply works.

Mbatha-Raw shows a totally different set of skills from those on display in her breakout period-piece hit “Belle.” As rising hip-hop phenom Noni, she sings about her frankest desires and provocatively dances in outfits that leave little to the imagination.

She’s dating the star rapper Kid Culprit (Richard Colson Baker, aka Machine Gun Kelly) who guest-starred on her debut record. She doesn’t drink and never loses track of the album that’s about to drop. Her driven stage-mother/manager (Minnie Driver) sees to it that Noni’s eyes are on the prize.

But Noni is in misery. On impulse, on what should be her moment of glory, she gets drunk and staggers out onto a balcony to jump. Only Officer Kaz Nicol (Nate Parker), assigned to guard her door, can save her.

The twists to writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s (“Love & Basketball,” “The Secret Life of Bees”) film come from the competing agendas set up here.

Kaz is the son of an L.A.P.D. captain (Danny Glover), a kid being groomed for politics. Whatever the tabloids and gossip websites think did or didn’t happen on that balcony could be damaging for Noni. But Kaz’s interest in helping her could be fatal to his ambitions.

Parker (“The Great Debaters,” “Red Tails”) has made “earnest” and shirt-shedding roles a specialty, and he benefits here by us seeing his conflicted character through Noni’s eyes.

Flashbacks show us the painful past that put Noni where she is. Driver’s stage mom isn’t painted in broad, monstrous colors. She’s just another damaged, needy woman living vicariously through a child who has chances she never had.

The unutterably gorgeous Mbatha-Raw has the charisma that has us rooting for her, for love, no matter the role. The real shock here is her musical presence.

If this sometimes-corny romance works “Beyond the Lights,” it’s because the lights are so perfectly pointed at her.

Roger Moore reviews movies for McClatchy News Service.

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