Tales of fame and its trappings — and the way they’re never enough to build a life — are as old as show business itself. Maybe for that reason, almost any story about discovering the hollowness of fame is often written off as a cliché. But what’s the difference, really, between cliché and convention? Sometimes the most seemingly conventional stories are the best tools for digging into knotty, everyday truths. Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Beyond the Lights is a deeply satisfying crowd-pleaser about a young singer, Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Noni, who’s on the brink of superstardom but isn’t particularly happy about it. A few days before her debut album is set to drop — and just after she’s won a Billboard award for a single she made with a scrawny, tattooed white rapper — she tries to throw herself off her hotel balcony. The mega-handsome young cop assigned to guard her room, Nate Parker’s Kaz, stops her just in time, though it takes a little doing. Noni is convinced that no one can see her; Kaz assures her he can. Their eyes meet, and their gaze becomes a kind of pact.
In that early scene, you may think you pretty much know where Beyond the Lights is headed. And you’re probably right. But that doesn’t negate the pleasure of getting there, and writer-director Prince-Bythewood — perhaps best known for Love & Basketball, her smart, provocative picture about a romance between two ambitious athletes — handles the particulars smoothly. Polished but blessedly un-slick, Beyond the Lights opens with a prologue set in South London in 1998. The young Noni (played by India Jean-Jacques), a serious-looking girl with a dark puff of hair, is being ferried by a high-strung white woman we assume, rightly, to be her mom, Minnie Driver’s Macy Jean. She hustles Noni into a hair salon just as the proprietress is closing up: Macy explains, her voice taut with desperation, that her daughter has an important talent show the next day. What can be done about her hair? The stylist takes a moment to show Macy a trick or two. Later, Noni, simply but neatly coiffed, takes the stage — she’s the only little person of color up there — and renders a guilelessly red-hot a cappella version of Nina Simone’s “Blackbird.” She wins runner-up. Macy, furious at the idea of her daughter being only second best, makes her throw the trophy away.
That scene tells us everything and nothing about how Noni will end up. Prince-Bythewood jettisons her heroine into a future of stretch limos, tiny metallic shorts, and glossy purple hair (the best weave money can buy), and introduces a smattering of conflict: That handsome, stalwart, nice-guy cop hopes to build a political career, and a sex-bomb celebrity like Noni isn’t, as his dad (Danny Glover) tells him, first-lady material. But Prince-Bythewood wraps lots of candid insights, some of them quite cutting, around these straightforward trappings. In the movie’s most explosive scene, Noni takes the stage at the BET Awards, only to surprise the audience (and her overbearing mother, now her manager) by refusing to play the shimmying sexpot they expect. She’s humiliated and then struck, onstage, by that white rapper (played by Richard Colson Baker), who’s now her ex. In shaping the story, Prince-Bythewood then takes a step that doesn’t quite make sense. But the mechanics matter less than the naked, pathetic power display — charged both sexually and racially — that she’s just shown us. This is Prince-Bythewood’s way of saying that even long after the Rihanna–Chris Brown gossip has died down, the issues at heart haven’t disappeared, and they’re no less troubling.
Mbatha-Raw (last seen in Belle, based on the true story of a black woman growing up among white aristocracy in 18th-century England) is a captivating presence here, look-at-me sexy one moment and soberly vulnerable the next. But she never lets her character descend into raw neediness or histrionic self-loathing. There’s always something sturdy and earthbound about her fragility, as if she knows she doesn’t have to play the victim, even when she feels like one. Noni’s triumph doesn’t come all at once — it takes awhile for her to stop fighting her hair and find her voice — but her moment of epiphany strikes a resounding chord. Maybe it doesn’t hurt, either, that Prince-Bythewood’s cinematographer, Tami Reiker, is a woman: Her approach to the movie’s sex scenes, and her mode of looking at both men and women in general, is deeply attuned to the pleasures of beauty and movement. A movie isn’t a cliché when it can sing like this.