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Beyond the Lights
Beyond the Lights is a rarity: not only is it a pure romance (as opposed to the commercially safer "romantic comedy"), but it's also a pure romance aimed more at adults than teenagers (people in their late 20s / early 30s), not to mention it stars two black leads. It's disappointing that this combination of elements means the film is a low-budget release that snuck into a small number of theaters near the end of 2014, but the film is so satisfying and achingly romantic that perhaps filmgoers can find a certain solace in the fact that it exists at all. Written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball), it's a passionate, warm-hearted (but not simply heartwarming), intimate story that not only brings a tone and technique sorely missing from other films in the same genre, but also captures the crackling electricity of its two up-and-coming leads.
It shouldn't be a revelation, but the pace at which Beyond the Lights approaches its central romance is something special. The film is hard to boil down to a plot summary because so much of what makes it work stems from the movie's slow-burn progression, building increasing chemistry and romantic tension out of small moments shared between Noni and Kaz. Filmgoers are used to seeing characters fall in love over the course of 40 minutes (often while also dealing with some other, more central conflict that takes up more screen time), but Beyond the Lights is a uniquely intimate movie. Bythewood allows us to know her characters in a way that feels private and sensitive, not to mention she uses Noni and Kaz's relationships with people other than each other to help fill in why they make certain emotional choices. All of it fits perfectly within the expected beats of a romance, which makes the arbitrary nature with which other films follow that template even more transparent.
Although Prince-Bythewood's efforts are key to the way the movie works, that effort would be wasted if she didn't have the right people to play her characters. She does. Gugu Mbatha-Raw's star started rising abruptly last year (she had both Beyond the Lights and Amma Asante's Belle), and if there's any justice in the world, it's not likely to stop. In the film's first twenty minutes, she gives herself completely over to both the heartbreak that causes her to climb over the railing and the emotionally impenetrable showbiz "persona" that allows her to get through the day. Nate Parker, who often gives off the air of a young Denzel Washington, seems perfectly suited for this kind of romance, walking the line between an authoritative police officer with politics in his future and a young man bowled over by Noni's radiance, projecting a certain degree of awe and longing every time he looks at her. The performers compliment each other: she gives him emotional shields to peel away, and he removes them with just the right level of sensitivity.
If there's anything to quibble about it's the music: although the kind of music Noni makes opens up certain racial issues, hyper-sexualized pop music can seem like kind of an easy target. The genre is probably a better fit for the needs of the plot, but it might've added more complexity to Noni's feeling of frustration if the music she was being talked into was a more direct bastardization of the kind of personal expression she would rather be working on. That said, Noni's complex relationship with her mother makes for some of the film's strongest dramatic scenes. At times, their struggle to understand and support one another can feel a bit familiar in a way that the rest of the film doesn't (as does Kaz's relationship with his father, played by Danny Glover), but when their moments work, they hit like a lightning bolt. Any other lingering issues are quickly drowned out by the overwhelming satisfaction of seeing Prince-Bythewood's fully realized characters, and watching how they lift each other up.
Director's Cut: The theatrical version of Beyond the Lights runs 1:56:15, and the director's cut runs 1:56:31. I saw the theatrical version four months ago, and can't be sure as to what extensions are contained in those extra sixteen seconds, but I suspect it was minor language and sexuality trims to get the film a PG-13 rating (Prince-Bythewood referred to it on Twitter as an "R-rated version").
20th Century Fox brings Beyond the Lights to Blu-ray with art that highlights the showbiz glamour side of the film as opposed to the quiet romance that the film's posters focused on, with Nate Parker's police officer framed inside Noni's purple shades. The one-disc release comes in an eco-friendly Viva Elite case, with a leaflet inside with the UltraViolet digital copy code printed on it, and a glossy slipcover repeats the same artwork.
The Video and Audio
Relativity's 1.78:1 1080p AVC widescreen presentation and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack are both impeccable. As the film was a 2014 release, it's no surprise that the disc looks good, but this is an exceptionally refined transfer that captures a certain nuance with regard to the film's slightly muted color palette and grain structure that is very pleasing. The film opens with a couple of scenes taking place at dusk, and the disc handles with degree of shadow and low lighting with impressive precision. The audio track vividly brings a wide range of environments and styles to life, including the slick polish of a music video, crowded pop star parties and awards shows, and the quiet intimacy of Noni and Kaz's beachside getaway. On all levels, a reference-quality presentation. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and Spanish subtitles are also included.
The disc kicks off with an audio commentary by writer / director Gina Prince-Bythewood, cinematographer Tami Reiker, and editor Terilyn Shropshire. This is a fairly technical track, focusing on the nuts-and-bolts challenges of creating the film on a limited budget, how the look and feel of the film was meant to support the story and the characters, as well as the casting process and developing the characters with the cast.
Video features kick off with a reel of deleted scenes (6:05), which include a couple of additional scenes with Noni and Macy that flesh out their relationship, as well as a couple of additional beats between Noni and Kaz. Optional commentary with the same participants as the full track is also included. "Escape to Mexico 2.0" (1:53) appears to be an alternate version of their beach montage, which plays a little like a music video. "Changing the Conversation" (4:58) focuses on director Gina Prince-Bythewood and the development of the story, as well as her relationship with Gugu Mbatha-Raw and how they developed the film over the course of four years. It's a little EPK-ish, but it moves fast enough and is packed with enough heartfelt comments from the cast that it's worth a look. This is supported by "Gary Theard: Boom Man" (4:28), a warm little featurette with Prince-Bythewood and a couple of key crew members remembering Theard, who passed away shortly after the film was finished. The featurette also touches briefly on continuing racial struggle in Hollywood. The disc wraps up with the complete "Masterpiece" music video (3:24) (as well as a brief snippet of a deleted scene right before it starts).
Trailers for Black or White, The Best of Me, Hector and the Search for Happiness, and Belle play before the main menu. Additional trailers for Wild and The Fault in Our Stars, as well as all the autoplay trailers, can be found under "Sneak Peek" in the extras menu. An original theatrical trailer for Beyond the Lights is also included. All of the video extras are presented in HD.
Beyond the Lights is a special movie. It captures what so many other films try to and fail: the intimacy of a real relationship between two fully realized people. The film itself would be enough, but the Blu-ray also comes armed with a nice lineup of extras and an exceptional presentation. Highly recommended.
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