Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Movie Review: Blinded by the Light

Blinded by the Light *** / *****
Directed by: Gurinder Chadha.
Written by: Paul Mayeda Berges and Gurinder Chadha and Sarfraz Manzoor based on the words and music by Bruce Springsteen.
Starring: Viveik Kalra (Javed), Kulvinder Ghir (Malik), Meera Ganatra (Noor), Aaron Phagura (Roops), Dean-Charles Chapman (Matt), Nikita Mehta (Shazia), Nell Williams (Eliza), Tara Divina (Yasmeen), Rob Brydon (Matt's Dad), Frankie Fox (Colin Hand), Hayley Atwell (Ms Clay), Sally Phillips (Mrs. Anderson).
You’d have to be pretty hard hearted not to be charmed or moved by Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light – Gurinder Chadha’s musical comedy about a Pakistani-English teenager circa 1987 who discovers, and then falls in love, with the music of Bruce Springsteen. And I say this as someone who has never really been a fan of Springsteen – I’m not not a fan – I just haven’t really connected with him. But Blinded by the Light shows a bigger truth other than just what the music of Bruce Springsteen means – but rather, what it feels like when you discover a musical artist who truly does speak to you. That kind of connection can cross all sorts of boundaries – cultural, generational, etc. – and feel like that artist is speaking directly to you. It’s a powerful thing to experience – and Blinded by the Light understands that.
To say that the film is blatantly manipulative would be an understatement – this is a film that pulls very hard on your heart strings from the beginning to the end, working the whole time to try and make you cry. And if you’re like me, you likely will cry at some point – perhaps several points – and while you may not quite feel good about yourself after the film is over for being so susceptible to this type of manipulation, well, it’s still sometimes nice to have a good cry.
The film stars Viveik Kalra as Javed – the son of Pakistani immigrants, living in the industrial town of Luton, England in 1987 – as Thatcher’s economic policies are devastating the country. Javed’s strict father Malik (Kulvinder Ghir) is a factory worker, who has worked hard since coming to England – hard to get his family into a good neighborhood, to continue to be a good Muslim, and to instill those values in his family. And then, of course, he loses his job – and everyone has to start working even harder. It is around this point when Javed meets Roops (Aaron Phagura), a Sikh classmate, and Roops introduces Javed to Bruce. Until then, Javed is into the modern pop music of the time – Synths are the future his white friend Matt tells him, and he agrees. But when he listens to Bruce, he feels as if this guy – writing these songs an Ocean away, a decade before, is speaking directly to him. And he becomes obsessed. But more than that, he becomes more and more confident as well. He starts to share his writing – his poetry – in class. He is able to tell the girl he likes – Eliza – that he likes her, and she even becomes his girlfriend. He doesn’t cower from the skinheads in town anymore. If it wasn’t for his father – who wants Javed to understand that he is Pakistani, not English, and he will never be English, he may even be happy.
I kind of wish that Blinded by the Light more embraced its musical roots – because the film really comes alive and is at its best when the music is blaring – from that first stormy night when he cannot stop listening to Bruce – the lyrics emblazed across the screen as he listens, or the makeshift sing-along Javed (with an assist from people the flea market) use to woo Eliza, or the exuberant sequence where they play Born to Run on the school intercom, and then run through the streets. These moments really made me want this film to become a full on musical – which it never quite does.
The film was directed by Gurinder Chadha, and it has the same sort of feel of her breakthrough hit Bend It Like Beckham from 2002. It is again about the child of immigrants – torn between their way of doing things, and the way of their adopted country – wanting to be “normal”, and wanting and honor your parents. It is a formula – but it’s a formula that works – even if making a musical would have been better.
I’m not entirely sold on this new breed of jukebox musical we’ve seen over the last few years – from Mamma Mia (Abba) to Bohemian Rhapsody (Queen) to Rocketman (Elton John) to Yesterday (The Beatles) and now Blinded by the Light (Springsteen), it feels like a cheap way to get you into the theaters, to hear what is ultimately inferior versions of the classic songs (Rocketman probably did this best – because again, it embraced being a full on musical, and the arrangements worked). Still, the music is still great, and the film delivers what you expect it to. I wish it was more daring – in every way. That could have taken a nice, little feel good story and made it more. But this works too, I suppose.

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