Neither one of these two indie films was even on my radar but I’m sure glad I got to see them! Beyond the Lights is currently out in select theaters and Begin Again is now available on VOD.
Beyond the Lights
The first time I learned about this movie was when I saw a photo of Gugu Mbatha-Raw in full S&M getup with purple hair and I thought, is that the actress from Belle? I absolutely loved her in that movie so she’s definitely the main draw for me to see this.
The film introduces us to the protagonist Noni Jean when she’s in her early teens. Raised by her driven & ruthless single mother Macy (Minnie Driver) who took her to various talent contests, it’s apparent that failure is not an option for her. Fast forward over a decade later, Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) has blossomed into a Rihana-like pop star on the brink of superstardom. She’s just won a Billboard Music award as part of a hip-hop duo with Kid Culprit (played by real-life rapper Machine Gun Kelly).
Noni is seemingly at the top of her game, being touted as a hot new artist with fans and paparazzi and a throng of fans hot on her trail. But the pressure of fame drives Noni to the point of self-destruction, as the more famous she becomes, the more she feels invisible. Kaz Nicol (Nate Parker), a young cop who’s assigned to be her security that night saves her just in the nick of time. ‘I see you,’ he says, and somehow that gives Noni just enough hope in her to keep going.
Noni and Kaz are inevitably drawn to each other, and it’s no-brainer that the two end up together. Some people compare this film to The Bodyguard but I honestly never thought of that movie the entire time I was watching this. For one, the relationship between the two characters is more on equal footing as Kaz isn’t technically working for Noni here and Noni herself isn’t quite in the same level as Whitney Huston’s character who’s already reached superstar status.
Though at first glance this film may appear as a romantic drama, it’s actually so much more than that. Yes, there are romance and romantic scenes, but it’s all part of Noni’s journey of self-discovery and being able to stand on her own two feet. It’s also a commentary on the image-obsessed music industry that exploits female sexuality to sell records. The outfits that Noni wears in the movie would make even Lady Gaga blush [or maybe not], there’s one particular outfit where her upper body is only covered by a string of chains and nothing else. It’s a not-so-subtle hint that Noni is metaphorically and literally in chains, the fact that she’s always in the shadow of her rapper partner and is also controlled by her mother within an inch of her life.
By the same token, Kaz’s life is in a way also controlled by external influences who push him for a political career. He’s also got an ambitious police captain father (Danny Glover) with his powerful allies and the pressure is getting to him as well. It’s an interesting parallel life story but the movie is more about Noni, which is truly the beating heart of the movie.
Mbatha-Raw is astounding in yet another career-making performance that shows her acting chops and versatility. Noni requires a tremendous physical as well as emotional commitment from the actor, and the British actress totally owned her role. I certainly hope she’ll get some kind of recognition come award season and that Hollywood continues to cast her in prominent roles. I also love the casting of Minnie Driver here, who I think is an underrated actress. Though I don’t agree with Macy’s actions, I don’t see her as a *villain* and the film does give us a glimpse into her character’s motivations.
The film itself is not perfect, there are moments that feel awkward or too schmaltzy. The pacing also feels a bit off as some scenes feel more drawn out than they should be. The scene of Noni & Kaz on the plane makes me cringe, and Nate Parker‘s constant shirtless scenes also feel gratuitous that it made me laugh. That said, I’m impressed by Gina Prince-Bythewood‘s direction and the story kept me engaged and fully invested in the main character. Last but not least, the music is definitely the highlight here, thanks to Mark Isham‘s emotive score. The song Blackbird holds a special meaning to Noni and by the time she sang a rendition of it towards the end, I wanted to get up and cheer for her!
This film seems to be under most people’s radar but I really hope that people would give it a look. I know I’d readily watch this again and the soundtrack is definitely worth buying!
This movie wasn’t even on my radar until fairly recently, and I haven’t seen Once yet which was Director John Carnet‘s critically-acclaimed debut. Well, I like Carney’s storytelling style and he’s assembled a great cast to tell the story.
Mark Ruffalo plays Dan, a distressed record producer of an indie label who’s been having a very bad day. Clashing with his business partner that leads to him losing his job and feeling estranged from his ex-wife and teenage daughter, he ends his day at a bar to drink his woes away. Meanwhile, Keira Knightley‘s Greta is nursing a broken heart having just split from his musician boyfriend and was dragged to perform a song by his BFF in attempt to cheer her up. Well it’s not exactly a meet cute, but you know that their encounter somehow would change their lives profoundly.
The film is told partly in parallel between the two characters, giving us a glimpse into their lives and how they intersect. The acting felt so natural and right away I connected with the two leads and their journey. This might be one of my fave Keira Knightley‘s performances and nice to see her portraying a plain and relatable girl, a role she seems to relish and have fun playing. Ruffalo is a reliable and charming actor and he’s just so likable and endearing here even at the moment of a life crisis. He embodies an artistic and idealistic guy who can *see* and feel music so deeply and he’s so convincing at it. The film took us on a ride with Dan & Greta sharing music on their iPods and hanging out together around NYC (which could double as the city’s tourism video). Music is infused throughout the film and so there are lovely musical moments here. Two of my fave scenes are featured in this week’s music break, but there’s also a fun one when the group play on a rooftop.
I LOVE the spontaneity and adventurous spirit as Dan assemble a group of amateur talents to make up a band for Greta and the recording process in various places – in an alley, rooftop and even a subway station – is fun to watch. This movie is so enjoyable and engaging that I even tolerate seeing Adam Levine playing a douche bag (convincingly, natch) but I have to admit he’s pretty decent here and I could see why they cast him. James Corden and Hailee Steinfeld also lend memorable supporting roles as Keira’s BFF and Mark’s daughter respectively, though Catherine Keener is a bit underutilized. Overall though, this is Dan and Greta’s story and both Ruffalo and Knightley shine in their roles.
The finale isn’t tied up in a neat little bow which I think gives the story even more poignancy, the way Roman Holiday was to me. Of course parts of me want a happy ending, but the more I think about it, I like it the way it is and there’s a genuine element of surprise when things don’t go as you expect it. I can’t recommend this movie enough, and trust me folks, you won’t be disappointed!
Have you seen these films? Well, what did you think?
45 thoughts on “FlixChatter Double Reviews: Beyond the Lights & Begin Again”
I’d call Begin Again’s ending more of a repeated stabbing to a heart than an element of surprise…God, that stupid girl! I was also so distressed after they came back to her place after that amazingly romantic scene and Ruffalo was all like ‘let’s do this baby’ and then Corden jumped out of the kitchen. Goddammit.
Glad you liked the movie! It was so charming and it’s my favorite character Mark played, he was so adorably joyful jumping around to music 🙂
Hi Sati! Ahah yeah, that interrupted rendezvous at the apartment gutted me too! But I don’t know if she’s being stupid though, as Ruffalo’s character didn’t really say anything that’d imply there’s something more going on, at least in the theatrical version we get to see. Now if he kisses her and profess his love to her and she still leaves, then maybe there’s something wrong w/ her. But I’m glad she didn’t end up w/ Adam Levine, can’t stand that guy.
Mark is absolutely charming in this. I remember the scene you mentioned about him going back to bed w/ that adorable messy curls of his, oh my 😛
I thought him calling all the moments with Gretta a pearl and the look he had on his face when they came back was kinda telling 😛 But yeah in that ending they shot and they didn’t use she is just an idiot. He’s not better, though – his wife was a complete bitch and he still came back. Yeah, Adam’s character was so awful.
That was such an epic moment 😛
LOVED Begin Again. I want to marry James Corden. I can’t wait to see Beyond the Lights. Gugu has been getting raves, and I LOVED her in Belle…so I’m all in for this one. I also really loved Love and Basketball, which I think is so horribly underrated.
Great write ups.
I LOVE James Corden, oh you should see him in One Chance portraying Paul Potts. He’s just so charming and lovable. Glad you’ve seen BELLE, then you MUST see Gugu in Beyond the Lights. The film it’s not perfect but I love it and it’s something I’d watch again for Gugu!
Fine review of an endearing, entertaining, and fun film. You called some of their travels around the city while recording the songs as being a wonderful tourism film for NY. For me it like a return home as I lived in Manhattan for 30 + years.. And have personally been in some of the exact same places.
Hello Mike! I’d imagine you’d enjoy that scene as you live in Manhattan for so long. Having just visited NYC recently, I love seeing those places they visited. NYC is really so charming, this movie is almost like a love letter to that city.
I’ll be honest, neither of these look appealing. Sorry!
Now you take that back, Mark! Begin Again is solid. 😉
Although it does bear a fair amount of schmaltz as well. I loved it though.
If you insist!
Until I see a review materialize on TRB, I will persist to insist. 😀 😀
Come on Mark, then you’ll be missing out 😀
I promise I’ll go see it 😉
Yay! Let me know what you think. Beyond the Lights is one of those films that despite its flaws, there’s something so beguiling about the character that you’re so invested in her story. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is a revelation, I’m definitely a huge fan of hers now.
I’ve seen fifty percent of these!!! Begin Again was a thoroughly surprising and endearing little movie, I think it has a shot at making my Surprises of the Year Award for this year’s Digibread Awards (which are, inexplicably, coming up somewhat soon here!) Man, how time does fly.
You have made a very good argument as to go see Beyond the Lights; it sounds like a possible outing in the near future, although I probably won’t be kicking myself for letting it get away from me. 🙂
Good stuff as always friend.
Hiya Tom! Glad you’ve seen Begin Again. Looking forward to Digibread Awards. I sure hope you’d give Beyond the Lights a shot even if it’s normally not your forte. Simply to witness the force that is Gugu Mbatha-Raw. She made the film for me and I wish more people had been more aware of her as an actress.
Yeah, Ruth you know what? I did it once with her for ‘Belle’ (ended up loving the movie, and her) and so I might as well do it again! 🙂
Expanding horizons, that’s what movie blogging is all about!
That’s the spirit Tom! Now if you’ve been impressed by Gugu in Belle then you MUST see her in Beyond the Lights just to see her range. I still like Belle more but this one is still very much worth a look!
Thanks for the heads up, Ruth. Both look interesting and I’ll try to give them a screening while I’m away during Thanksgiving.
Hi Michael! Hope you’ll make time to catch Beyond the Lights on the big screen. Not only does it have a female protagonist, it’s also got a woman of color in the directing chair. A rarity in Hollywood and it’s a worthy film that should be seen.
I can’t say I’m that interested in seeing either of these movies. That actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw does look a lot like the late singer/actress Aaliyah though. Maybe if one of them is on Netflix, I’ll give it a watch.
Hey now that you mentioned it, she kind of does resemble Aaliyah a bit. I really like both of these. If you want to venture out of your comfort zone, you can’t go wrong w/ either one.
Nice review, Ruth. I, too, liked the way that Begin Again ended, and yeah, this may well be Knightley’s best role yet. Certainly her most likeable, if nothing else. Haven’t seen Beyond the Lights, however.
Hi Chris! You’re right, it’s perhaps one of Keira’s most likable and relatable character. She has a certain vulnerability that I haven’t seen in other films. I can’t recommend Beyond the Lights enough, hope you’d give that a shot.
You know you will have to check out Once now
I might at some point, hopefully I’ll enjoy it as much as Begin Again.
Ooo, great reviews here! Beyond the Lights has definitely been under my radar until your post (and another post I read), so I’d like to see that at some point. It’s kind of crazy how much I’ve been at the theater lately, so my goal is to not go broke in the months of November and December (haha, we’ll see). The movie looks great, and I listened to the songs you posted in your Music Break post. Wow, Blackbird really had me going! So good.
So glad you enjoyed Begin Again! I had such a fun time with that movie, and I really loved the music. Definitely one of the unexpected favorite films of the year for me. It was great to finally see Knightly NOT in a period piece, but just playing an ordinary girl. Glad you enjoyed this one, Ruth!
It’s a bummer Beyond the Lights is overlooked, seems that a lot of people haven’t even heard of it but it’s a good one. I LOVE the soundtrack, been listening to that Blackbird song constantly and it’s just so beautiful.
Glad I finally saw Begin Again, Ivan loved it too 🙂
I really want to see Beyond the Lights, but it’s practically out of theaters here now. So I’m definitely going to rent it once it’s out on DVD! I’m glad you introduced me to it. I’ll settle for listening to the soundtrack until then. 🙂
Aww, that’s awesome! Glad you both enjoyed it. I think it might make my top ten this year, but I’ll have to see a few more films before I can say that!
I have seen Begin again and quite like it. I like your review and I should my own review soon…but there’s always something needs to be written and I have limited free time now
Hey Nov! I hear ya, I’m so behind on a lot of reviews too.
Not really interested in Beyond the Lights but I probably will check out Begin Again.
Sadly I haven’t seen Once yet even though I love the song Falling Slowly. Such a brilliant song. Glen Hansard reminds me of Cat Stevens and that’s a good thing. As a musician the Best Song Oscar is usually the most boring part of the show but so well deserving of the Oscar in this case.
It will be interesting to see how Corden does when he takes over for Craig Ferguson on The Late Late Show in the spring.
“Not really interested in Beyond the Lights” Boo!! That’s too bad as Gugu is A-MAZING!
I’m curious to see Corden as Late Late Show host too, love that guy!
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Great reviews! Gugu Mbatha-Raw might be my Best Actress winner for Beyond the Lights. She’s amazing in that film. Glad you liked Begin Again so much. The cast and music are so much fun, and it’s one of the most charming films I’ve seen all year. Really hope it wins the Best Original Song Oscar.
Hello Josh! I’m thrilled to hear you say that about Gugu!! She’s one of my fave actress right now, I really like Beyond the Lights AND Belle mostly because of her.
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