By Liam Lacey
I really enjoyed the trailer to Blinded by the Light, a movie about a Pakistani-English teenager, growing up in late-eighties England, who is inspired by the music of Bruce Springsteen and takes a trip to New Jersey to visit the land of the Boss.
As for the entire movie, it’s basically the same thing, only about 40 times as long with diminishing returns. The premise here — an appealing idea at the core of the cult of Bruce-ology —is that music can provide lonely people with an emotional roadmap. While I’m not sure why Desi kids would be obsessed with white Boomer rock idols (also see the movie Yesterday) the improbability of the crossover is part of the fun, like the country-rap hit “Old Town Road.”
Based on the 2008 memoir Greetings From Bury Park by Guardian journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, the film follows aspiring writer Javed (Viveik Kalra, with a doe-eyed, vulnerable pop-idol appeal) and his struggle to free himself from the constraining expectations of his conservative Muslim family. And while it’s mostly familiar Brit-com feel-good hugs and lessons, there are a few giddily mad moments.
The first time that Javed — a miserable young Pakistani-English teen living in the London factory suburb of Luton — puts on his Walkman earphones and cues “Dancing in the Dark” from Springsteen’s Born in the USA, the revelation is roughly on par with St. Paul on the road to Damascus or Moses watching the Red Sea part. Outside his parents’ townhouse, the thunder roars and the lightening cracks and Springsteen’s lyrics appear on the screen: “Man I ain't getting nowhere. I'm just living in a dump like this.”
Well, dump is a little harsh to describe Luton, which in 1987 was a functional suburb of London, centred around a Vauxhall auto factory. The upwardly mobile Khan family, consisting of Javed, mom, dad and teen sister Shazia, are the only non-whites in a lower-middle-class townhouse development. But things begin to look dire when the family patriarch, Malek (Kulvinder Ghir) gets laid off from his Vauxhall job, a demoralizing blow which only hardens his resolve that his son study economics and never forget that he’s a Pakistani. That seems unlikely, given the daily presence of racist skinheads, who chase Javed home from school or inscribe alley walls with swastikas and racist slurs.
Though Javed initially feels like a misfit at his new multicultural pre-university college, it proves a breakthrough. His nice white teacher (Hayley Atwell) singles him out for his writing talent. But the big break comes when his cocky Sikh schoolmate Roops (Aaron Phagura) exposes him to the music of Springsteen. Through the music, Javed finds the confidence to pursue his dreams. That includes getting up the nerve to ask out Eliza (Nell Williams), a rich kid socialist with a Bananarama hair bow, and showing his heartfelt poetry to his writing teacher, which sets him toward his future writing career.
Blinded by the Light is directed and adapted by Gurinder Chadha, best known for her girl soccer film, Bend It Like Beckham (2002) which is a template for this film. While Chadha includes a few gritty nuggets about the psychological cost of immigration, the problems are mostly smothered in a warm jelly of sentimentality, a surfeit of stock characters and an exhausting succession of feel-good breakthroughs.
Springsteen provided 17 songs, which makes the entire movie feel like a sort of a greatest hits rock video. These numbers are deployed like heavy artillery whenever Javed has something big and emotional on his mind. The music booms and he recites or lip-syncs the lyrics, even if they don’t exactly fit the narrative. I mean, what girl wouldn’t swoon to “You ain’t a beauty but, hey, you’re alright?”
At these moments, Blinded by the Light teeters on the edge of Boss meets Bollywood jukebox musical, though Chadha doesn’t fully commit, which is understandable. Despite Springsteen’s West Side Story resonances, his mumble-and-bellow arrangements are a poor fit with the ensemble choreography. The sequences here resemble those accidentally surreal karaoke-bar videos, where the songs and the randomly matched visuals appear to have been assembled by people communicating their deepest thoughts via Google translate.
Blinded by the Light. Directed by Gurinder Chadra. Written by Safraz Manzoor, Gurinder Chadra, and Paul Mayeda Berges. Starring Viveik Kalra, Hayley Atwell, Rob Brydon, Kulvinder Ghir, Nell Williams and Aaron Phagura. Opens wide August 16.