Entertainment

Movie review: ‘Blinded by the Light’ is hobbled by the script

Roops, Eliza, and Javed hit the ground running, with the sounds of Bruce Springsteen in their heads. [Warner Bros.]
Ed Symkus More Content Now
Posted: Aug. 12, 2019 9:32 am

Here’s a little story about my relationship with the music of Bruce Springsteen. Many years ago, on a slow news day, when I still worked in a newsroom, a bunch of us were asked to assemble a communal piece. Each of us was told to choose something in pop culture that was generally admired, but that we just didn’t get, then add a paragraph explaining why. I wrote “The Music of Bruce Springsteen” and was immediately labeled a pariah ... by anyone who didn’t read the explanatory paragraph. My rationale was that I thought his early songs - mostly the ones on “The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle” - were quite good. But in 1978, I saw my first live Bruce show, part of his “Darkness on the Edge of Town” tour at the Music Hall in Boston. It soon landed a spot, and remains in, my top three concerts of all time (joining The Who and Led Zeppelin). The problem was that he and the band were so great onstage, so full of infectious energy and inventive musicality, I was never able to enjoy listening to his comparatively staid albums from that day on. Live Bruce ruined studio Bruce for me.

The “based-on-a-true-story” “Blinded by the Light” is about Javed (Viveik Kalra), a Pakistani lad growing up in the mid-size town of Luton, just north of London, in the 1980s, when the unpopular Margaret Thatcher ran the government and racism - quite a bit of it against Pakistanis - was common.

At 10, Javed favored the ska music of Madness; jumping ahead to his 17th birthday, he’s into the electro-pop of Pet Shop Boys, and is a budding poet and lyricist. His wishes on that birthday include making a lot of money, kissing a girl and getting out of this dump. That last wish refers to both the town and the home where his strict, old-fashioned dad (Kulyinder Ghir) is in charge of all money that comes in, no matter who earns it, and believes that any music that isn’t traditional Pakistani isn’t worth listening to.

On Javed’s first day of classes at Luton Sixth Form College (for British high schoolers who don’t go directly to college) he has two life-changing experiences: His English teacher, Miss Clay (Hayley Atwell), becomes interested in his wishes to be a writer, and another student, Roops (Aaron Phagura), insists to him that “Bruce is the direct line to all that’s true in this world,” then loans him a couple of cassettes.

That’s about where anything believable ends in the film. The teacher will read Javed’s amateur poetry and champion him. The music on those cassettes will affect him profoundly, upon his first listen (he starts with “Dancing in the Dark” and segues into “Promised Land”).

Viewer distraction sets in when Springsteen’s lyrics flash across the screen while Javed is grooving to them on his Walkman (and continue to do so throughout the film). Skinhead racism rears its ugly head via some school bullies, but the script whitewashes any real threats. A perky girlfriend, Eliza (Nell Williams), shows up to make sure that kiss wish comes true. Dad, to whom making money is the only thing more important than Pakistani music and slavish respect from other family members, loses his factory job. Uh-oh!

Almost everything about the film is dicey, from Javed’s 30-second transformation into a Bruce disciple to a series of less-than-capable acting performances (though Ghir’s heavy-handed approach to playing dad works well, and Atwell is very good as the teacher), to some cringe-worthy scenes that have characters running through the streets, “Mamma Mia!”-like, deliriously singing along to Springsteen songs.

The whole film feels treacly and overenthusiastic in telling the story of Jay going after his dream of becoming a writer and being propelled by Springsteen’s lyrics; it just tries too hard to be a feel-good movie. By the end, with all racist bullies conveniently forgotten, everything is fine between everyone, but that happy ending is reached far too easily. Hardcore Bruce fans are going to flock to this film and love it. Casual fans will enjoy the fact that his lyrics fuel the story. Anyone else would be wise to skip it.

Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.

“Blinded by the Light”
Written by Paul Mayeda Berges, Gurinder Chadha, Sarfraz Manzoor; directed by Gurinder Chadha
With Viveik Kalra, Nell Williams, Kulvinder Ghir, Aaron Phagura, Hayley Atwell
Rated PG-13

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