It would be interesting to watch "Beyond the Lights" with someone like, say, Rihanna. The movie's heroine is Noni, a successful but unhappy R&B starlet known for her sexually provocative videos. As a child, Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) wanted to sing like Nina Simone, but today's fans want fantasies. At a Billboard Music Awards ceremony, Noni obligingly shows up wearing little more than gold chains and a massive choker -- slave-bling, essentially, that symbolically degrades her gender and perhaps her race.
It's one of several striking images that hint at what "Beyond the Lights" might have been. Written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood ("Love and Basketball"), the movie can be a surprisingly pointed take on the entertainment industry, here depicted as a machine driven by self-exploiting women and the men who sell their records. Mostly, though, "Beyond the Lights" is a tepid romance in which Nina falls for Kaz (Nate Parker), a handsome young cop stationed outside her Los Angeles hotel room.
Let's get the obvious comparison out of the way: "Beyond the Lights" is a faint shadow of 1992's "The Bodyguard," without the star power of Whitney Houston or Kevin Costner. That's a bad idea even on paper, though Mbatha-Raw makes a convincing Noni. Last seen playing an 18th century aristocrat in "Belle," the actress trades her corsets for stripper-shorts and does some creditable singing, dancing and writhing. Colson "MGK" Baker plays Noni's boyfriend, a sleazy Eminem type named Kid Culprit; Minnie Driver plays her overbearing single mother and manager.
Almost single-handedly sinking the movie is Parker's Kaz, a humorless, emotionally stifled character who mostly squints and grimaces. Parker showed glimmers of life as a troubled soldier in 2012's "Red Tails," but here he sucks the fun out of his every scene.
Prince-Bythewood deserves credit for hammering the music industry harder than most price-of-fame dramas dare. Her film also feels remarkably authentic and contemporary, thanks to canny costumes by designer Sandra Hernandez and original tracks co-written by pop producer The-Dream. Too bad the movie's sharp commentary gets smothered in schmaltz.