A star, like a sucker, is born every minute—and we’ve always loved a peek at what goes on behind the platinum curtain. For decades Hollywood obliged, delivering camp classics that showcased both the shiny bits and the tarnish: Valley of the Dolls, Funny Girl, Mahogany, and, of course, A Star Is Born (all three iterations). Then came the dark times of Glitter, Burlesque, and other bent cinematic tinsel; even prestige fare like Dreamgirls felt hopelessly retro in an age of gossip blogs and basic-cable confessionals.
Beyond the Lights might not single-handedly revive the backstage melodrama on the big screen, but the movie manages to drag it defiantly into 2014 while still tapping into all the stuff that was so satisfying about those earlier films. Belle‘s Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars as Noni, a Ciara-like singer whose talent takes her from the grim council flats of London to the almost-A-list canyons of Los Angeles. She’s a rising starlet still new to the world of photo shoots, top-shelf champagne, and chauffeured Escalades, with a debut album on the way and a white rapper boyfriend who’s famous famous. Then one night, after taking home her first prize at an awards show, Noni decides to crawl over the railing of her beautiful hotel balcony and let go. Her ruthless mom-slash-manager (Minnie Driver, having a ball with her bitchery) doesn’t want to know why Noni’s sad, she just wants a promise that it won’t happen again. But the LAPD officer (Nate Parker) who pulls her off the ledge sees the miserable girl underneath and starts to draw her out. Both Mbatha-Raw and Parker are appealing, expressive actors, and writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball) lets them breathe, filling in the boilerplate bones of the story with smartly nuanced commentary on race and fame and the relentless negotiations that a young woman—even one without a record deal—has to make in a world that expects her to be everything but herself. B+