Mawkish 'Blinded By The Light' Wears Its Too-Hungry Heart On Its Sleeve
"Is a dream a lie if it don't come true, or is it something worse?"
That's a line from the title track of Bruce Springsteen's 1980 album The River, one of several Boss-tic Gospels quoted more than once in Gurinder Chadha's Blinded by the Light, a relentlessly upbeat coming-of-age dramedy that borrows its title from a different Springsteen song. But the question posed by the film is a less poetic one: Can a movie be forgiven its abundance of mawkish cliches and awkward form if its story is more or less true, its performances are warm and compelling, and the uplift it aims to provide is desperately needed?
This may be more of a personality inventory than the sort of aesthetic pickle with which any board-certified film critic might render aid. If you're a committed cynic, the kind of person who believes Darkness on the Edge of Town or Nebraska or even The Ghost of Tom Joad are Springsteen's most profound works, you'll likely find Blinded by the Light too syrupy for your black-coffee palette.
If, however, you're more partial to the romantic and optimistic side of The Boss — represented here by the Born LPs (...to Run and ...in the U.S.A.) — or if you fell hard for Chadha's 2003 love-and-soccer comedy Bend It Like Beckham, then put on your Saturday clothes and step into the passenger seat of my '57 Chevy-with-a-three-ninety-six, because the night and the highway beckon.
Blinded by the Light is a free adaptation of British-Pakistani journalist Sarfraz Manzoor's 2008 memoir Greetings From Bury Park (a riff on the title of Springsteen's debut album, Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ). The book chronicled how Springsteen's music inspired the adolescent Manzoor to stare down the poverty and racism he faced growing up in Margaret Thatcher's England, and to hold fast to his dream of becoming a writer.
Some of the most affecting songs from the first decade of Springsteen's catalog address the emotional distance the songwriter felt from his dad, who was no more enthused about his longhair son's determination to become an artist than Manzoor's factory-worker father would be, 20-ish years later. Springsteen's more famous tunes from that era, of course, are all about how desperately he wants to escape the hometown he will, decades later, learn to love. It doesn't take much imagination to see how this material would speak to a sensitive kid who feels alienated both from his traditional Pakistani household and from the dreamcrushing nowheresville of ... Luton, Bedfordshire.
In the scenario that screenwriters Manzoor, Chadha,and Paul Mayeda Berges have concocted, Mazoor's alter-ego, Javeed (lovably doe-eyed 21-year-old British-Asian actor Viveik Kalra), is under pressure from his conservative and cash-strapped parents to contribute financially to the household, earn a degree in some practical discipline that will ensure his prosperity, and marry a partner chosen by his parents, as his older sister is preparing to do. ("Look for the Jews in your class," his father tells him on the first day of school. "They are very successful people.")
Javeed is more interested in writing songs for his buddy Matt's synthpop band, and figuring out why Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman) is so confident and popular with girls. When Roops (Aaron Phagura), a Sikh schoolmate, slips him cassettes of Darkness on the Edge of Town and Born in the U.S.A., Javeed finds all of his frustrations and aspirations given exuberant voice in the work of the man whom Roops calls "The Boss of us all."
Encouraged by one of his teachers (Hayley Atwell, who recently concluded her tour of duty as seminal S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Peggy Carter over in the Marvel Cinematic Universe), he keeps filling notebooks with lyrics and poetry and essays, even as his dad is laid off from his factory job, and his family faces increasing harassment from white supremacists affiliated with the National Front.
While nothing that happens is surprising, nearly all of it is performed with soulfulness and conviction and charm. Meera Ganatra and Kulvinder Ghir, who play Javeed's mother and father, are superb, believably hurt and bewildered by the growing disconnect between them and their son. It's always a benefit to see the antagonists gifted such depth and humanity.
Springsteen, who has written original songs for movies but seldom licensed his old material for use within them, was sufficiently moved by Manzoor's book to allow director Chadha to use a number of his biggest hits in the film for free. (He had script approval, naturally.) But her approach to the musical sequences is strange: She didn't want to make a movie musical (having already made one in Bride and Prejudice, her Bollywood-inspired Jane Austen adaptation) where we accept the convention of characters singing and dancing together to express some shared extremity of emotion.
Chadha's more naturalistic compromise has characters singing along to Springsteen albums, or worse, simply reciting Springsteen lyrics to one another, which quickly becomes grating. A sequence wherein Javeed wanders out into a thunderstorm while listening to Born on the U.S.A. for the first time on his Walkman has supertitled lyrics to "Dancing in the Dark" swirling around his head on screen, a PowerPoint-esque affectation that is not exactly going to make anyone forget Singin' in the Rain.
Later on, when Javeed spots his crush (Nell Williams) at a flea market and begins singing along to his headphones to her, his friend Matt's Springsteen-loving father (game Rob Brydon, sporting a truly awful wig and keeping his wilder comic instincts in check) joins in, if only to shield Javeed from deeper embarrassment. Pretty soon this Saturday swap-meet has erupted into an impromptu Springsteen karaoke session. Hey, it could happen.
Lest one dismiss these objections as the sourpuss ravings of someone who just doesn't get the Boss, allow me to present my credentials: In the last three years, I've re-bought the complete 20th century Springsteen catalog, which I'd already purchased on CD twice, on wax; never mind that I already owned the expanded CD/DVD box-set reissues of Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, and The River. I've attended about 20 Springsteen concerts since he reconvened the E Street Band in 1999, including the time I personally laid hands on his lower back and left calf as he crowd-surfed over my head while singing "Hungry Heart" at the Baltimore Arena in November 2009. The library of Springsteen bootlegs on my various hard drives exceeds the storage capacity of the biggest iPhone Apple makes. I consumed his 2016 autobiography Born to Run both in prose and in its read-by-the-author unabridged audio edition. When he adapted that book into the Tony Award-winning solo play-with-music Springsteen on Broadway, I spent the equivalent of one of my mortgage payments for a pair of orchestra seats, and I don't regret the purchase.
So you can take me at my word when I tell you I have myself been blinded, and frequently bankrupted, by The Light.
One advantage of Springsteen on Broadway, I said before I'd even seen the show, was that it warded off the Springsteen jukebox musical that might otherwise have been inevitable. For better or for worse, Blinded by the Light gives us an inkling of what that might've looked like.