If one settles in for “Blinded by the Light” expecting it to be a giddy affair, hoping to be transported by the pre-1987 music of Bruce Springsteen, one is almost sure to be disappointed.
If so, it’s one’s own fault.
Because as much as one might have loved The Boss, the films of Gurinder Chadha or the expectation of an empowering message about racism and the liberation identifying with a great songwriter/spokesman for the down-and-out can be, as much as you might think that Chadha (“Bend it Like Beckham”) has been marching towards that day when she’d make a musical set among the Subcontinent Diaspora relocated to the U.K., those expectations are a tad too much.
Well, they were for this “one,” anyway.
Even though the picture’s cute and manages a few truly magical moments, the end result’s a bit of a slog — like the message-packed meanderings of Springsteen’s less popular deep cuts. It’s a “true events” comedy that wanders and gropes on past the point where it’s charming — an obese 113 minute comedy weighing on a 95 minute-wide chair.
Viveik Kalra is Javed, a Luton son of Pakistani immigrants in the 1987 U.K. of Margaret Thatcher and a rising “National Front” (neo-Nazis).
Yes, he’s spat upon by skinheads who don’t have the guts to shave their scalps. Yes, even the tweens in their neighborhood carry out cruel, racist pranks on the “Pakis.” His keep-your-head-down father (veteran character actor Kulvinder Ghir) rules Javed like he rules his house — as a dictator. He works, makes his wife, two daughters and Javed work, collects all the cash and kowtows to more successful Pakistani-Brits as if he’s living under the Raj.
“Start at the top and STAY there,” Dad counsels. More amusingly, he says, seek out Jewish classmates. “Do what the JEWS do!”
He is, his journal-keeping son narrates, “stuck in another century.” Dad has determined his boy will go to college, study economics and then submit to an arranged marriage.
Javed just wants to write. He has scribbled down poems for years, even writes lyrics for his “Synth is the FUTURE” neighbor and lifelong friend, Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman), who has the ’80s fashions and ’80s hair to be in his own synth-pop “Pet Shop Boys” era band.
Javed is in school with Goths, “Material Girls,” “Banaramaheads” and the like, struggling to “finally kiss a girl and get out of this dump,” but oppressed, suppressed and depressed by the racism of others and the tyranny of his downtrodden “You will NEVER be British” father.
A Sikh classmate (Aaron Phagura) he just met has the answer. It’s on two quaint devices called “compact cassettes,” containing the albums “Born in the U.S.A.” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” by Bruce Springsteen. Bruce, “Roops,” preaches to Javed, “is the direct line to all that’s true in this s—-y world!”
Chadha underscores this “direct line” by having Springsteen’s lyrics swirl around Javed as he loses himself to “Dancing in the Dark” through the headphones of his Sony Walkman.
Javed has found his champion. Dad just wants to know, “Is he JEWISH?”
That teacher that looks for what’s special in any given student is played here by Hayley Atwell. The Boss gives Javed the courage to show her his poems, the guts to try and get his Pakistani kid into Springsteen essay into the school newspaper.
Reciting or singing Bruce is how he tries to win the fair Eliza (Nell Williams).
A few characters note how “nobody listens to Springsteen any more” in 1987, a performer relegated to “my dad’s music” by the teased-hair kids dressing like Boy George and Madonna. Matt’s dad (the hilarious Rob Brydon) proves that point.
When Javed starts to serenade Eliza with his favorite Springsteen song of romantic longing, real-life Springsteen fan Brydon makes it a duet (I think the song was “Thunder Road,” maybe “Badlands,” feel free to correct me) and “Blinded by the Light” finally becomes the neo-musical it really wants to be.
Chadha recreates the ugliness of the era, the racism that marched hand-in-glove with Thatcherism, the engineered recessions that amounted to a war on the working class (Javed’s dad works for Vauxhall/GM, and is laid off) as well as the daytime pre-rave disco dances Muslim immigrant kids like Javed’s sister (Nikita Mehta) flocked to without their parents’ knowledge.
The pre-college “Sixth Form” college Javed attends is like a John Hughes movie with British accents –the cliques, the laughable fashions, the tyranny of synthetic “art rock.”
And the director revives the magic of prosthelytizing music that you love by sharing a single pair of headphones on a Sony Walkman, more romantic and certainly more hygienic than trying that with the earbuds of today.
You have to take the movie on its own terms, as a reality-based fable that wades through a sea of corn. I was willing to go along with it, and got downright choked up when it hit its peaks.
But Chadha ham-fists her way through one dance number (Bruce is even less easy to dance to than he is to sing along to, in most tunes) and seems most at home in the disco.
Our young lead doesn’t have the range that the mythos of the songs demand. He is insulted, threatened, humiliated and treated with dismissal or contempt. He persists and marches towards something like a living-my-dream triumph, but I found Kalra pretty much a two-note, maybe three note performer, far less moving that the tunes underscoring his actions.
The kid who “converts” Javed is seriously shortchanged in the screenplay.
Ghir paints a lovely picture of a patriarch stripped of the things that make him valuable as the head of the family, but not too proud to insist his wife pick and kids pick up the earning slack.
Atwell is the generic white teacher who shows the kid of color his value, and Brydon is as amusingly broad as he always is.
I so wanted to love “Blinded by the Light” (my least favorite Bruce song) with its messaging and music that maybe I wanted too much from it. And certainly there’s too much of it. But if you’ve got permission to use all those Springsteen songs, the impulse to edit it into something tighter is “gone on the wind.”
It’s still an often-lovely coda to a summer of mostly brand-name blockbusters, and busts.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic material and language including some ethnic slurs.
Cast: Viveik Kalra, Kulvinder Ghir, Nell Williams, Aaron Phagura , Rob Brydon and Hayley Atwell
Credits: Directed by Gurinder Chadha, script by Paul Mayeda Berges, Gurinder Chadha and Sarfraz Manzoor. A Warner Brothers/New Line release.
Running time: 1:57