Friday, November 28, 2014

Beyond the Lights























BEYOND THE LIGHTS         B+                  
USA  (116 mi)  2014  d:  Gina Prince-Bythewood

Why you wanna fly Blackbird you ain't ever gonna fly
No place big enough for holding all the tears you're gonna cry
Cos your mama's name was lonely and your daddy's name was pain
And they call you little sorrow cos you'll never love again

So why you wanna fly Blackbird you ain't ever gonna fly
You ain't got no one to hold you you ain't got no one to care
If you'd only understand dear nobody wants you anywhere
So why you wanna fly Blackbird you ain't ever gonna fly

—Nina Simone “Blackbird,” 1966, Nina Simone - Blackbird - YouTube (3:51)

While women made up roughly half of the directors at this year’s independent Sundance Film Festival, yet they still struggle when it comes to films receiving a wide release, where of the Hollywood studio releases originally slated for the summer of 2014, 37 are directed by white men, 2 by black men and 1 by a woman, according to a recent analysis by Lucas Shaw at The Wrap.  That one film, JUPITER ASCENDING, co-written and directed by Lana Wachowski along with her brother Andy, was pushed back to 2015, reducing the summer’s total to zero.  Black American director Gina Prince-Bythewood struggled for four years to get this film made, where the first draft was written in 2007, as Sony Pictures originally agreed to produce and distribute the picture, but dropped out when the director insisted upon casting a then unproven talent, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, in the starring role.  While she trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, specializing in musical theater where song and dance is her forte, but Sony wasn’t convinced she was destined to become a star and were more interested in names like Rihanna or Beyoncé.  As it turns out, the actress received plenty of acclaim in an earlier release, BELLE (2013), and she’s easily the best thing in this picture as a rising pop star singer named Noni.  The fact that we haven’t seen her face plastered on billboards, cosmetics advertisements, or music videos suggests she can offer a fresh perspective about the difficulties young women are subjected to when attempting to break into a sexist, male-dominated music industry, where the N-word and the B-word are routinely thrown around in hip-hop lyrics, a business where women have routinely been objectified as sex objects since the advent of music videos on MTV, with images only growing raunchier and more graphic, like the controversial cover to Nicki Minaj’s new release Anaconda, Nicki Minaj "Anaconda" Unaltered Cover Art, Memes, Music ..., where the racy video, Nicki Minaj - Anaconda - YouTube (4:49), is a parody of the exaggerated hypersexualization required by women.  This cultural demand for sexist artificiality is at the heart of the film, which plays with the contrasting ideas of image and real black aspirations. 
  
While this female written and directed $7 million dollar black indie film is wrapped in a cliché-driven Hollywood romance that resembles Whitney Houston in THE BODYGUARD (`1992), the film also pays tribute to that troubled artist, one of the great voices of our time who died a tragically premature death, reminding us that the pathway to real success is paved with plenty of inner obstacles along the way.  In an introductory prologue, Noni as a young 10-year old girl (India Jean-Jacques), prodded on by her obsessively driven stage mother (Minnie Driver in one of her best performances in ages), finds a black hairdresser just as she’s about to close, desperate to do something with her daughter’s hair before a talent competition.  At the performance she sings a song well beyond her years, Nina Simone’s ultra serious 1966 anthem to the black consciousness of the times, “Blackbird,” Nina Simone - Blackbird - YouTube (3:51), winning second prize to an obviously inferior Shirley Temple imitator.  Storming out in disgust, her mother orders her to toss out the trophy, barking out “You wanna be a runner-up?  Or you wanna be a winner?”  Cut to an adult version of Noni starring in the background of a music video for white rapper Kid Culprit (rapper Machine Gun Kelly), where she’s dressed in a skimpy bondage outfit waiting for him to make her one of his many sexual conquests.  This, however, is the image of success, appearing on three consecutive #1 hits for the Kid, as she’s soon awarded a Billboard Music Award as a rising star, where her upcoming first album release is all but guaranteed to be a sensation, making her an overnight superstar.  No one cares that she can sing, however, but are bowled over by the heat of the sexually suggestive imagery she sells.  When she returns to the penthouse suite with her bottle of champagne, she hires a moonlighting cop at the door, keeping everybody else out.  When her mother insists on going inside, Noni is about to plunge off the balcony, rescued by the quick thinking of the local policeman Kaz Nicol, Nate Parker, so strong in Denzel Washington’s THE GREAT DEBATERS (2007), who instantly becomes a tabloid hero, rescuing the fair maiden in distress.  Except for the cop, who deals with crisis situations every day, no one else senses the extent of her emotional descent, literally drowning in the image she has created, where she feels suffocated and imprisoned.  For the camera, however, still pushed by her hard-nosed mother, now her manager, she maintains all professional appearances while behind the scenes she is literally driven into dysfunction and despair. 

While the critique of the music business is probably the film’s greatest strength, nonetheless the means by which the message is carried is through the traditional vehicle of a boy meets girl Hollywood romance, seemingly preposterous and yet there it is bigger than life, where the scenes between the star and her protector are exquisitely understated, quiet, disarmingly honest and intense, feeling authentic and natural, while surrounded by a swarming throng of tabloid photographers that follow them both wherever they go.  Kaz has his own pressures, as his father is none other than Danny Glover, a highly decorated retired cop, where he’s following in his father’s footsteps, trying to make the most of the opportunities he’s been given, perhaps heading into politics where he thinks he could make a difference.  The trust factor and conservative stability of politics however do not go hand in hand with tabloid fanaticism and the cultural obsession with celebrity worship, where both appear headed in different directions, yet there’s a natural chemistry between them, where perhaps what they need the most is the kind of honesty they have with each other. The pressures of fame, ambition, and career have them both on edge, where each is told by friends and handlers that the other is bad for business, that their career would be derailed, so they simply get away for awhile, heading for an isolated beach in Mexico where the media circus around them can stop spinning for a moment.  In one of the most beautifully written scenes of the film, shot with such utter simplicity, Noni stands in front of a bathroom mirror and removes her infamous hair extensions, a chic fashion style synonymous with her reputation and fame.  While we don’t realize it at the time, it’s the first step of removing herself from the shackles of the past, as she still has to find that familiarity of living in her own skin, which is expressed beautifully at a small karaoke bar when she returns to Nina Simone, a hauntingly powerful moment that transcends any of the over-produced crap that sells millions, yet it’s an intimate, quietly anonymous moment that couldn’t be more captivating.  It’s a hint of what’s to come, as it’s not like the music industry allows the players free reign to do what they want when they’re just breaking into the business, as that’s reserved for established stars.  However, it’s a small step in the right direction, an act of healing and empowerment, where despite being overwhelmed by the frightening prospects of what lies ahead, she is for the first time in her life truly happy.  Doing her own singing, Mbatha-Raw literally inhabits the role with a stunning effectiveness, a breakthrough moment in her career, where her own personal transformation seems to be taking place right before our eyes.  

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