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Movie about a British Pakistani kid who finds comfort and identity in Bruce Springsteen’s music is full of false notes
BLINDED BY THE LIGHT (Gurinder Chadha). 117 minutes. Opens Wednesday (August 14). See listing. Rating: NN
A good song can brighten your day. A great one can change your life. And Bruce Springsteen wrote a lot of great songs in the 70s and 80s, which made a big difference to Sarfraz Manzoor, a British Pakistani kid growing up in Thatcher’s England.
Manzoor’s teenage discovery of the Boss is the inspiration for Blinded By The Light, Gurinder Chadha’s open-hearted celebration of finding salvation in music. It turns the events of Manzoor’s life into pure cliché in the process, but that’s the movies for you.
I mean, maybe it’s intentional – so much of Springsteen’s early output favours raw feeling over nuance. But I doubt it director Chadha has always been a broad-strokes filmmaker, depending on big, emotional gestures to push past wobbly plotting or thin characterization. It worked in Bend It Like Beckham it didn’t in Bride & Prejudice. Blinded By The Light falls somewhere between the two, the big stylistic flourishes almost always getting in the way of the simple emotional beats of the story.
In his first big-screen role, Viveik Kalra (of the UK TV series Next Of Kin and Beecham House) plays Javed, a kid in 1987 Luton, bristling at the expectations of his autocratic father (Kulvinder Ghir), who’s determined to keep his family Pakistani rather than British – a strategy that seems to invite constant harassment from National Front hooligans.
Javed feels alone and isolated, but when new friend Roops (Aaron Phagura) introduces him to Springsteen’s music, it’s revelatory. Javed suddenly has someone who understands his specific frustration, and his world opens up to new possibilities… like asking a girl on a date, writing an essay for the school paper and standing up to his father.
The mismatch between the bombast of Springsteen’s music and Javed’s relatively modest, utterly generic goals never really resolves as either comic or dramatic, which is a problem. Much of the film feels like it’s still trying to figure itself out. Chada – who co-wrote the script with Manzoor and her partner Paul Mayeda Berges – means to liven up the pat story by infusing it with the energy of a proper musical, but she doesn’t quite know how to make it happen.
A scene when Javed and a friend’s dad (Rob Brydon) create a singalong to Thunder Road in a street plaza comes awfully close – though we’re left wondering which characters can hear the music and how a few dozen strangers all seem to know the dance steps – but later, when Javed and Roops hijack their school’s radio station to somehow blast Born To Run through all of Luton, a full production number just sort of happens.
Chadha seems convinced that audiences will forgive her movie’s rough edges as long as they care about Javed’s journey, and maybe they will. But I suspect she’s also counting on those audiences not to care that it’s a journey they’ve seen many, many times before… just with a better soundtrack.