Beyond the Lights is the kind of film that I wish could be a part of the conversation, when it comes to changing how Hollywood does things. The film is a romantic drama that happens to feature black actors in the lead roles. It received some marketing this past fall, but not a huge campaign, and it was not screened for critics. Regardless, Beyond the Lights received very strong reviews and an Academy Award nomination to top off its acclaim. It is not necessarily the best film of the year, but it is a well-made, original feature film, working with some tried but true story ideas, with strong performances pushing it even further up. All of this and it barely breaks even (depending on marketing costs). Now the film is available on Blu-ray, with a great technical presentation, a director’s cut, and a commentary that only hints at the hard work it took to get this film made.
The story is focused on Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Kaz (Nate Parker). Noni is a singer who is just starting to hit super-star status, but is conflicted by this life she has been pushed into by her mother (Minnie Driver). The stress hits her hard enough to push her to near suicide. This is where Kaz comes in. A police officer with political ambitions (which he is being pushed into by his father, played by Danny Glover), Kaz saves Noni’s life and the two instantly form a bond. This comes at a cost of the parents of both, the media, and others all interfering in how well these two can not only be together, but work on being the people they have the potential to be.
There are plenty of aspects to this story that are not all that new. From the ‘parents pushing their children’ to the ‘love conquers all ending’, but it is the script and direction by Gina Prince-Bythewood (of Love & Basketball fame) and the strong performances that make Beyond the Lights more than just decent. Even while dealing with the music world, which relies on tackling a depiction of the media, Beyond the Lights feels completely grounded throughout its runtime. We follow characters that are at a certain standing in their lives, but watching them interact with each other never feels false. There are aspects that perhaps fall into melodrama, but that is not something that harms the film any more so than any of the romantic dramas considered to be much better than average.
Again, it comes down to who is involved here. Regardless of what gender and what ethnicity Gina Prince-Bythewood is, here is a director and writer that can clearly make a compelling drama. While some may only see directorial flash in the way some scenes involving beautiful scenery are staged, there is a lot more going on here in the juxtaposition of characters in certain scenes, the way atmosphere is being captured, and finding a way to make the reality of the situations depicted manage to get through the veneer of the media presence that these characters are surrounded by.
It most certainly helps that the actors are providing such strong work. Gugu Mbatha-Raw had a great 2014 between this film and Belle and she should be considered a very talented young actress fit for a vast number of roles in the years to come. As Noni, she must do a ton in an effort to convey such a complicated character, who is trying to hold back her true feelings, while also playing to the media, as well as portray a convincing singer. Nate Parker is very good here too, with a more introspective handling of his character, only allowing for so many moments to provide a strong expression of what is going on with him. I would also add praise for Danny Glover, who does more than just phone in a role that could have easily played in that way, as well as Minnie Driver, who’s character is demanding and caring, with a lot of focus on which way things will inevitably turn out for her, in regards to her daughter.
One can look at the various Nicholas Sparks dramas and see them as pretty-looking, but superficial, when it comes to the depths of their stories and characters (let alone ludicrous at times). Beyond the Lights has much more going for it, which comes from the nuance seen in both the performances and the filmmaking. It balances the levels of drama in relation to the different characters well, the soundtrack is as strong as one would hope, and the story ultimately pays off in ways that feel so well earned.
Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
Clarity/Detail: Shot digitally, Beyond the Lights is a character-driven film set in the world of Los Angeles, with various visits to other locations. As a result, the film has plenty to portray, as far as these settings and the Blu-ray does a great job of capturing so much detail. While there is a handheld quality to certain scenes that allows for a more intimate look, that does not stop this film from shining on Blu-ray visually.
Depth: Objects and characters have their own space and environments that allow for a good sense of dimensionality.
Black Levels: The black levels are deep and inky with no signs of crush.
Color Reproduction: There are a lot of bright colors on display here and they all come through quite well. It is reflected in the costumes and scenery taking place in the music events we see in the film especially, but while Beyond the Lights is a drama, it does have a color palette that makes for an engaging visual look that is natural and bold.
Flesh Tones: Facial textures are wonderful here. There is a nice level of warmth as well as plenty of detail to take note of.
Audio Format(s): English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish
Dynamics: Equally impressive as the video, the audio track does a fine job of capturing the essence of this film. We hear a lot of music and dialogue and it all comes through quite strong. This film’s lossless track provides a lively and rich experience, well-fitted with the film we get to watch.
Low Frequency Extension: Thanks to the great use of music, there is plenty of work for the LFE channel.
Surround Sound Presentation: A great mix here, as we can clearly here all that is offered in the soundtrack, score, dialogue, sound effect, and ambient noise balanced quite well across each channels. The front gets the most emphasis in quieter scenes, but there is no real issue to be found.
Dialogue Reproduction: Everyone sings and speaks clearly.
While not boasting a ton in the way of content, the director’s cut of the film, a commentary, and a handful of extras is more than enough to satisfy fans of this little film.
- Commentary by Filmmakers Gina Prince-Brythewood, Tami Reiker & Terilyn Shropshire – I wish more could have been said about the challenges of making this film, but recording a commentary in a studio can only allow for so much content of a certain kind. Regardless, while there is a lot of praise given to everyone on screen and involved in various scenes, this is an engaging track helped by having multiple filmmakers present to comment on putting together this film.
- Deleted Scenes with OptionaCommentary by Filmmakers (HD, 6:05) – Some extended scenes as well, but each just add a little extra that was clearly not all that necessary to the film.
- Director’s Cut (HD) – This cut lasts about the same length of the film, with some different edits that led to the original R-rating of the film. None of the added or different content is all that explicit, but getting a wider audience into the theater meant dealing with that pesky MPAA.
- Escape to Mexico 2.0 (HD, 1:53) – A sequence of the film set in Mexico has been cut into a music video.
- Changing the Conversation (HD, 4:58) – A brief featurette concerning the development of the film and I wish it was much longer.
- “Masterpiece” Music Video (HD, 3:24) – The full music video seen in pieces in the film.
- Gary Theard: Boom Man (HD, 4:28) – A spotlight on the first black boom mic operator, who worked on Beyond the Lights. It was the last film he worked on.
- UltraVilet Copy of the Film
Ideally films like this could do better, but at least some voices are trying as hard as Noni in an effort to be heard. Beyond the Lights is not a film that set out to change the game, but it is an effective love story developed by a very talented filmmaker, featuring some very strong performances. A good soundtrack and visual support the film as well and are quite well-reflected in the quality of the video and audio track for this Blu-ray. The collection of special features does just enough to add some extra strength to this release as well. People should check out what this film has to offer.