Blinded By the LightReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 08/15/19 23:07:54
(Worth A Look)
Having long conquered the stages of Broadway, the jukebox musical—the storytelling format in which the narrative is formed around the most popular hits of a particular musical act—has begun to make serious inroads into the world of film that is sure to only increase exponentially as the studios respond in earnest to the wholly inexplicable success of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” This summer season alone has seen three examples of the form that have arrived with, to put it mildly, wildly different levels of artistic success. “Rocket Man,” the flashy and surrealistic Elton John biopic, did a surprisingly effective job of fusing together his music and story in ways that might not have completely passed the historical smell test but which certainly captured the essence of him as an artist in thoughtful and eye-catching ways. On the metaphorical flip side, the truly execrable “Yesterday” utilized the music of the Beatles to anchor a story that took a potentially interesting premise—what would happen if the Fab Four had been mysteriously wiped from the collective consciousness and the one person who still remembered them attempted to reintroduce their music into today’s world?—and squandered it in ways that were deeply dopey at best and borderline offensive at worst.Now comes “Blinded by the Light,” an adaptation of the memoir by Sarfraz Manzoor that recounted his life as a Pakistani British small town teen in the mid-eighties whose entire life trajectory is altered when he is exposed to the music of Bruce Springsteen. Clearly devised from the ground level to be a massive crowd-pleaser, the film tries so hard to win viewers over in the most shameless ways imaginable that there are points where the only thing I could feel was the strain of it trying to charm me. On the other hand, when the film does work—and there are a number of moments when it does exactly that—the results are so entertaining—hell, exhilarating—that I found myself both delighting in them while at the same time wishing that the rest of the movie could have been as good.
Set in 1987, the film tells the story of Javed (Viveik Kalra), a British teenager of Pakistani descent living in Luton, England and chafing from both the usual ailments of anyone his age—mostly in the form of his hardheaded, inflexible and highly traditional father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir)—as well as the economic downturn and racial intolerance towards Pakistanis that prevailed at the time. Javed dreams of one day becoming a poet but is too shy about it to actually display his talents—even when a helpful English teacher (Hayley Atwell) suspects that he has more to say than he is letting on, he blows her off—and when his father loses the low-wage job at the local GM plant, things at home get progressively grimmer. Javed is at the point of packing all of his dreams away—even the one about asking classmate Eliza (Nell Williams) and following the path prescribed for him by tradition and expectations when another Pakistani classmate, Roops (Aaron Phagura), sensing his distress, presents him with what he claims contains the answers to dealing with everything he is going through—cassettes of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town” albums.
This sounds nutty to Javed—what could some guy from New Jersey know of his problems—but from the moment that he starts playing “Dancing in the Dark” on his Walkman, he is an instant convert. Despite the vast cultural and social differences, Springsteen’s lyrics about characters striving to overcome the darkness in their lives and achieve their own dreams strike the kind of chord that millions have felt over the years. While he does the expected things like quoting Springsteen lyrics whenever possible and sporting flannel shirts with the sleeves cut off, it taps something deeper in him. Newly emboldened, he finds to confidence to ask out Eliza and to hijack the school radio station and interrupt its steady diet of Cutting Crew in order to fire up a shot of “Born to Run.” More importantly, the knowledge that Springsteen was able to rise from such humble working-class beginnings and make it as a writer inspires him to finally pursue his dream of becoming one himself in spite of the pressures bearing down on him from the racial tensions he faces every day outside his home and the personal ones from inside that threaten to permanently destroy his relationship with his father, who considers his son’s new hero to be nothing more than just another bad example that he must rid himself of immediately.
As stated earlier, “Blinded by the Light” has been designed to be a giant crowd-pleaser of a movie and to that extent, it has the perfect director in Gurinder Chadha, whose best-known film is the international hit “Bend It Like Beckham.” She is an expert at making films containing grand gestures that work best when seen in a theater with a large audience. Having seen “Blinded by the Light” under those exact circumstances, I can attest that it does work along those lines. It is only when you look past the emotional grandstanding to search for something more that it starts looking a little more flimsy. This film has any number of similarities to “Bend It Like Beckham” in terms of its basic narrative but “Beckham” told a story in which all of its various parts felt authentic, relatable and believable and that is why the story resonated so much. By comparison, “Blinded by the Light” may be inspired by a memoir but the screenplay, which was co-written by Chadha, Manzoor and Paul Mayeda Berges, too often feels as if it has been calibrated just a little too much to inspire audience response—there are times when it is practically nudging you in the ribs to laugh, cry or what ever. Another problem is that while economic and racial tensions depicted here were certainly in evidence during the waning days of Thatcherism when the story is set, these particular elements feel oddly tacked on here and never fully integrate themselves into the narrative. (This is not to say that they don’t belong—I just wish they had been handled a little better than they have been here.) The way that it presents the relative disinterest that virtually everyone in Javed’s orbit demonstrates towards Springsteen is a little odd as well. To all but a few people, Springsteen is either someone who they have never heard of before or is dismissed as an old fart that no one listens to anymore. However, since the film takes place in 1987, only a couple of years after Springsteen had his international breakthrough with the massively successful “Born in the USA” album, the dismissal that Javed’s fascination inspires just comes across as strange.
However, when the focus shifts to Springsteen’s music and the ways in which it affects Javed’s entire existence, it truly comes alive and not just because his songs are among the greatest and most powerful in rock music history. In much the same way that the songs inspire Javed to take enormous personal risks, it also inspires Chada to take similar chances behind the camera as well. During his first exposure to Springsteen, for example, the words of desperation found in “Dancing in the Dark” and “The Promised Land” ring so true and large to Javed that we literally see the lyrics printed on the screen. (The latter song is even depicted with his outside during a raging storm for maximum effect.) This may sound cheesy on paper, I suppose, but to see it burst out on the big screen is undeniable thrilling—even those who are not Springsteen fans may find themselves being swept away by it all. Later on, Chada pushes things even further and to even more delirious effect in a scene set at a local market where Javed spots Eliza and, with the help of the father of a friend (Rob Brydon in a funny cameo), bursts into a rendition of “Thunder Road” that briefly transforms the entire film into a full-blown musical so successfully that I found myself wishing that the entire film was done in that manner. Sure, there are moments when the song selections are a little too on the nose (let us just say that the song choices utilized to underscore the conflict between Javed and his father are not subtle) and the fanatic in me wishes that the soundtrack could have made room for some slightly more obscure tunes (though the end credits do include a previously unreleased Springsteen song that he originally recorded for the soundtrack to, of all things, the first Harry Potter movie) but for the most part, the songs on display have been deployed both respectfully and effectively.In many ways, watching “Blinded by the Light” is like watching a Bruce Springsteen concert—it traffics in big emotions as he uses his songs to remind listeners to keep the faith, stay true and not give in to despair during the dark times and leaves them inspired to go out and fight for themselves and each other for another day. The chief difference is that while Springsteen is able to tell his stories in ways that are grand enough to reach the back rows of the largest stadiums yet in a manner so intimate that it feels as if he is speaking only to you, Chada is able to accomplish the former but doesn’t quite manage to pull off the latter. And yet, even though the film is not quite as good as one wishes that it could have been, it is still a generally entertaining work that has a lot of energy and good cheer, nice performances from a cast led by engaging newcomer Kalra, a lot of great music and it even finds just the right note to end on. For fans of Bruce Springsteen, the film is pretty much a must but even those who aren’t quite as enamored with his work may enjoy it as well.
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