The release of "Beyond the Lights" signals the heartening reemergence of a film genre that's sadly become increasingly rare to find at the multiplex these days: the adult romantic drama. Films in which the developing love between two characters gets treated as the focus of the story, and not a side product of whatever high-concept plot it's been grafted onto, are all too rare. They've instead been replaced by empty-headed rom-coms, "first love" subplots in teen coming-of-age stories, or the ridiculous manufactured tragedy ladled onto any number of films based on Nicholas Sparks novels. That this film's mature romance takes off from a swooning fantasy in which a Rihanna-esque pop singer falls for a hunky cop doesn't render it any less effective; in fact, the emotion and surprising truths the film is able to wring from such a soapy premise makes it all the more apparent that the film is truly something special.
A charmingly heartfelt showbiz melodrama from writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood ("Love & Basketball" and the underappreciated "The Secret Life of Bees"), "Lights" tells the story of Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a budding pop superstar on the verge of her big breakthrough. We're first introduced to Noni as a musically gifted young girl (played by India Jean-Jacques) entering her first talent competition. Her haunting performance of Nina Simone's "Blackbird" earns her second place, but her ambitious stage mother (Minnie Driver, humanizing a potentially hateful character) makes her throw away her trophy in an attempt to teach her daughter a hard lesson: In life, being a runner-up doesn't count.
We flash forward to present day, observing how the timid young girl has blossomed into a star. Her life now filled with red carpets, glossy magazine photo shoots, and "featured" credits on a number of hits from her hip-hop star boyfriend Kid Culprit (rapper Machine Gun Kelly), Noni is a full-on pop diva. All the while, her mother still manages every aspect of her career, guiding her through the media blitz building up to the release of her first solo album.
But the pressure of all that time spent in the spotlight, being molded and packaged into a commodity, has come at a great cost to Noni's emotional well-being (it's no coincidence that the costume design for Noni's outfits early on tend to feature a lot of chains), and one night she acts on a self-destructive impulse to jump from the balcony of her Beverly Hills hotel room. Luckily, handsome police officer, Kaz (Nate Parker) is moonlighting as part of Noni's security detail and saves her at the last second, pulling her back from the ledge. Naturally, the story quickly gets out and, with the press dubbing him "Officer Hero," Kaz finds himself pulled into Noni's world.
As love blossoms between the two, they're forced to navigate the issues that constantly threaten their relationship. Noni's presence in the public eye means that they must forgo any sense of privacy. Meanwhile, Kaz's police captain father (Danny Glover) sees her lifestyle at odds with political aspirations he has for his son; at one point cautioning that Noni isn't "first lady material" when it becomes apparent that the relationship is getting serious. Together the couple bond over how little control they often feel they have over their own futures. Refreshingly, the film treats these obstacles seriously, and not as mere contrivances to keep the lovers apart. Even better, the film never argues that the solution to Noni's problems is to leave her career behind.
Though the subject matter of "Beyond the Lights" is undeniably soapy, the film never crosses the line into camp, offering a credible take on intricacies of life in the music industry that touches on a number of topical subjects, from the hyper-sexualization of women in entertainment, to the constant battle between personal identity and the perception of the public. Prince-Bythewood's sure hand keeps things from getting sappy or overly sentimental, but maintains an earnestness in the emotions of her story that always ring true.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who made a huge impression earlier this year in the period drama "Belle," proves that she's a star -- even providing her own vocals during the musical numbers. Delivering an award-worthy performance, she plays Noni as a fascinating, complicated, and damaged human being. While Kaz's character would have benefited from a bit more shading (he occasionally comes across as a runway model with the patience of a saint), Parker invests him with a thoughtfulness and decency that make him instantly appealing (the rock-hard abs don't hurt either), and most crucially, he and Mbatha-Raw have chemistry to spare. In their hands, "Beyond the Lights" perfectly captures that sublime blend of glittery fantasy and aching emotion that every great pop song can provide.