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Article by Teddy Durgin

Once again, the 'Lights' shine on Gugu

After her luminous turn in "Belle" earlier this year and now her equally impressive and VERY different performance in "Beyond the Lights," I guess I'm just gonna have to get used to saying and writing the name Gugu Mbatha-Raw without giggling. And since she is such a good actress with what I think is a bright career in front of her, maybe I should just get all of my material out of the way now in one paragraph so I can be fair to her in future reviews. OK, here goes: Wow, she's hot! But what kind of a name is "Gugu?" Is it from the original Swahili meaning, "Hey, baby!" I had some Gugu Raw in an airport once, and I had to take Pepto-Bismol for at least a day after. I applaud her for talking so candidly about growing up in a mixed-race household in various interviews. Let's see, "Gugu" was given to her by her South African father. And "Mbatha" is an old family name of her Klingon mother. I kid, I kid. Her dad is indeed South African and her mom is British. This will make it all the more sweet for each when she one day stars opposite Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Cumberbatch in the longest marquee film EVER! Oh, and if she ever co-stars in a flick with Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as her husband and Quvenzhane Wallis as her daughter... I'm done. I'll be finished. I'll go find work in another field. Alright, now that I've gotten THAT outta my system... how's Gugu Mbatha-Raw's new movie, "Beyond the Lights?" Pretty darn good! She plays Noni, a rising young singer from England on the verge of stardom. She seems to have everything going her way - flashy photo shoots, a debut album that's building buzz, chauffeur-driven Cadillacs. But she's utterly miserable, choking under the boot heel of a domineering manager (Minnie Driver, gloriously playing wicked here). One night after a star-studded awards show, she decides to climb out onto her hotel balcony and re-enact the opening scene of "Lethal Weapon" (minus the cocaine). She is pulled back from the edge by Kaz, (the thankfully named Nate Parker) a kind, studly LAPD police officer. He sees her for the unhappy damsel in distress that she is. She comes to love him for being the only "real" person in her orbit. Yeah, it all sounds very trite, and it is in spots. But Mbatha-Raw and Parker make for such an appealing screen couple, that their chemistry gets you past the parts you've seen in a dozen other fame-rocks/fame-sucks pics like "Dreamgirls," "A Star Is Born," "Mahogany" and so forth. I'm just thankful it didn't remind me of "Glitter!" What also carried me through were two really great supporting performances. The first is Driver, who just relishes playing a world-class witch/mother figure here. The second is Danny Glover as Parker's dad, who wants his upstanding son to eventually run for city office and not get involved with this new chart-climbing hussy. "Beyond the Lights" is entertaining - the musical sequences are directed with energy and flash by Gina Prince-Bythewood of "Love & Basketball" fame, who also penned the script - and the film's top-notch cast is able to successfully navigate the story into more serious areas, too. Prince-Bythewood and Co. provide deft commentary on everything from depression to the entertainment industry's treatment of women. Their film presents the fantasy, but it does so honestly. It doesn't spend half the movie setting up Noni's world of champagne and record deals, then turn around to point a finger at its audience for wanting that lifestyle. Sure, there's a part of me that wanted this story to go full-on cheesy. There are few things I like better than Hollywood glitter-trash like that Cher-Christina Aguilera pic "Burlesque" of a couple years back. But, as it is, "Beyond the Lights" is smart, fun entertainment. And that's the name of the game. "Beyond the Lights" is rated PG-13 for sexual content, brief partial nudity, some language and thematic elements.


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