A lot was said last year about the state of the romantic comedy, a genre long considered creatively bankrupt. An unexpected crop of mischievous, wild child rom-coms felt like a breath of fresh air for a genre that had become hopelessly stale. It’s a still strange to think that only two rom-coms I saw in the theater last year, Obvious Child & Wetlands, were about an abortion & an anal fissure, respectively. Driving the point home was the ZAZ-style spoof They Came Together that pointed out just how bland & cliché the genre had become by turning each of its recognizable tropes into a throwaway gag.
With all of this focus on retooling the romantic comedy, though, it’s been interesting that the same effort hasn’t been made for the romantic drama. Typical rom-dram genre fare like the bull-riding nonsense The Longest Ride & the ludicrously titled The Time Traveler’s Wife haven’t had their own creative antidote quite the same way the rom-com has. Last year’s rom-dram Beyond The Lights was a good start, though, even if it didn’t re-invent the wheel. Instead of deviously playing with genre expectations the way Wetlands & Obvious Child did with the rom-com, Beyond the Lights reinvigorates the romantic drama while still playing by the rules. It’s an exceptional example of a typically bland genre that somehow manages to excel without challenging rom-dram’s parameters.
The movie’s story is fairly a straightforward. After saving a budding pop star’s life by literally talking her off the ledge, a sweetly sincere police officer suddenly finds himself romantically involved with the floundering starlet. Worlds collide as the hot cop’s challenged by the reality of press & paparazzi coverage and the woman he loves struggles to break free from the overbearing control of her record company & momager. While the protagonist wants to write & sing Nina Simone-type barn burners, her mother fancies her to be more of a hyper-sexualized Rihanna type of pop star and there’s a compelling struggle between those two interests. This plays out simultaneously with the romance plot, the pop singer’s hot cop boyfriend reminding her what “real” life is & how to be true to herself.
Beyond the Lights‘ more creative tangents are confined to its pop music angle, finding an authentic visual palette in its mock music videos, BET Awards appearances, and music festival performances. The movie has a generally handsome look to it otherwise & puts a great soundtrack selection (featuring songs like M83’s “Midnight City” & Beyonce’s “Drunk in Love”) to great aesthetic use. The most impressive thing of all about Beyond the Lights, however, is how effective it is without being showy. Lines like “She needs to be in a hospital, not in front of cameras,” would play for a laugh in a Nicholas Sparks style melodrama, but some how works perfectly well here. Beyond the Lights does little to revolutionize the romantic drama genre, but instead shows you just how effective that formula can be when executed well.