'Beyond the Lights' is showcase for Gugu Mbatha-Raw

If “Belle” put the actress on Hollywood's radar, 'Beyond the Lights' heralds her superstardom

From the writer-director of the beloved "Love & Basketball," Gina Prince-Bythewood, "Beyond the Lights" seems like it will follow the tried-and-true celebrity-and-commoner formula seen in "The Bodyguard" and "Notting Hill."

But the first sign this film aspires to be much more is the pitch-perfect opening scene, set in dank 1998 south London, where a white mother hurries into an Afrocentric salon after hours seeking help with her mixed-race daughter's hair before the next day's talent contest.

The girl finishes second. Fast forward to years later, when Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw of "Belle" and "Doctor Who") has become a pop sensation under the micromanagement of stage mom Macy (Minnie Driver). For one music video, Noni dons S&M garb and gets paired with white rapper Kid Culprit (an über-diabolical MGK, a.k.a. both Machine Gun Kelly and Richard Colson Baker) — an evocation of slavery that encapsulates the soullessness of showbiz.

Noni's romance with Kaz (Nate Parker), a Los Angeles police officer moonlighting as a bodyguard, blossoms exactly as you'd expect. But the film still delivers its social critiques, taking the record industry to task for selling sex and debasing women.

Noni eventually undergoes a metamorphosis, both physical and musical, from a Rihanna into a Corinne Bailey Rae. Along the way, Mbatha-Raw looks, sounds and moves like an A-lister. If "Belle" put the actress on Hollywood's radar, "Beyond the Lights" heralds her superstardom. A flurry of accolades and a record deal should follow.


"Beyond the Lights"

MPAA rating: PG-13 for sexual content, partial nudity, language, thematic elements.

Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes.

Playing: In general release.

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