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Blinded by the Light believes in the transformative power of song lyrics. More specifically, it suggests that Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics have the timeless ability to make sense of teenage angst and economic struggle. The trouble is this inner struggle is not cinematic, so we are left with a film that mixes a coming-of-age drama with an awkward, risky jukebox musical. Director Gurinder Chadha and her collaborators mean well—the earnestness on display here is unusual—although their attempts to celebrate Springsteen are not enough to suspend the required disbelief.
Newcomer Viveik Kalra stars as Javed, an English teenager whose parents emigrated from Pakistan. It is 1987, a period where Thatcherism and the white supremacist National Front still reign supreme. Like all teenagers, Javed is too self-involved to see the heartache around him. He wants to escape Luton, the crummy suburb where he lives, and study to become a writer. He’s already written dozens of poems, and some of them are lyrics for his best friend Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman), an aspiring musician. Javed yearns for escape in a general way, at least until another friend Roops (Aaron Phagura) lends him some Springsteen tapes. Suddenly the world makes sense, and Javed’s hungry heart sees The Boss as his answer to everything.
The film’s handling of Javed’s family is what makes it unique. Chadha, along with co-screenwriters Paul Mayeda Berges and Sarfraz Manzoor, create multiple subplots involving Javed’s father, mother, sisters, and the surrounding Pakistani community. Blinded by the Light is based on a true story, drawing from Manzoor’s experiences in Luton, and there is authenticity to everyone’s struggles. Javed’s father is not merely an adversary, but a proud immigrant who is skeptical of assimilation. His demure sister has a rebellious streak which she carefully hides. Significant stretches of the film are painful: We see Javed’s family endure multiple hate crimes. This commitment to socioeconomic realism is meant to make the musical scenes that much more thrilling. The trouble is that the film fumbles the genuine release Springsteen can provide.
There is a wide spectrum when it comes to movie musicals. On one end, there are realistic musicals where we only hear the songs as they’re being performed by characters on screen, such as in the romantic drama Once and music biopics like Bohemian Rhapsody. Then, there are musicals of the more traditional sense that avoid realism altogether, in which the music comes from nowhere and characters spontaneously burst into song. Blinded by the Light is somewhere in the middle—sometimes the music comes from Javed’s cassettes, and other times he and his friends burst into song, their dancing deliberately amateurish. This inconsistency ultimately becomes a test on the audience’s patience.
Another issue is the film’s disinterest in Springsteen’s tunes. The most crucial scene in the film is the one where Javed listens to him for the first time. Chadha uses a thunderstorm as a metaphor for his inner turmoil, and when the music swells and Javed finally understands himself, Chadha illuminates key lyrics across the screen. It’s as if these words, not the accompanying anthemic melodies, are the only thing that stir Javed, and yet Springsteen’s words were never meant to be considered in a vacuum. There are also multiple scenes where Javed earnestly quotes Springsteen lyrics to his friends and family, as if they are a shibboleth they should understand. No one actually speaks like this, so the film’s plausibility further erodes.
The Boss was never too sentimental. There is a hard-earned wisdom to his songs, and Blinded by the Light eschews all that in favor of familiar, contrived coming-of-age theatrics. A romantic subplot is tacked on—Manzoor notes that the character is a fabrication—and the big father-son reconciliation strives for maximum poignancy, only to falter. Everyone involved with Blinded by the Light is trying their best, and you want them to succeed. The film’s portrayal of 1980s England through an immigrant lens is a story worth telling, but as anyone who has written bad high school poetry can attest, good intentions do not always lead to great art.
Blinded by the Light opens Friday in theaters everywhere.