Review: Blinded by the Light

Bruce Springsteen fans of a certain type often seem perplexed by their affection for his music, which is the opposite of subtle. While the themes hit on complex human connections, the emotions are big, the guitars loud, and the arrangements for the most part reach for hyperbole by default. No one who listens to a Springsteen song adds anything of themselves to it, because there’s already too much of it.

It is this quality of his music that both informs the British coming-of-age movie Blinded by the Light and drags it down. Based on a memoir, the story follows the struggles of Pakistani-British teenager Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra) in 1987, during the twilight Thatcher years of unsteady employment and charged cultural confrontation. It’s also a time when shiny new wave music was dominant on the UK charts, undergirded by the menacing postpunk shiver of the dance and rock scenes coming out of the industrial north and poorer quarters of London. The effect of all these forces on suburb-bound Javed is presented indirectly. With his hard-working father (Kulvinder Ghir) suddenly unemployed and on Javed’s ass to make something of himself, the youth turns to poetry as an outlet for his frustrations. As in almost every coming-of-age story, what the protagonist needs is something to fill that empty spot in his soul he doesn’t know exists. Then he meets the more outgoing Roops (Aaron Phagura), a Sikh and a Springsteen fanatic who gives Javed two of the Boss’s albums on cassette, and, as the saying goes, his eyes are opened.

What the movie gets right is Javed’s sense of discovery, that feeling that takes you over as a young person when you hear a song, see a movie, read a book that seems as if it was made with you in mind. And Director Gurinder Chadha wisely dwells on the paradox here: What can a boomer guy from a working class background in Jersey, who himself never held a job in his life, say to a minority kid in late 80s England whose knowledge of the milieu Springsteen is singing about is cursory at best? In essence, Chadha says that none of that makes any difference, which is the beauty of pop music. Javed connects with Bruce on every level. His poetry improves without actually taking any cues from Springsteen. He is purely inspired.

Unfortunately, the story and, more precisely, the delivery of that story is as ham-handed as “Jungleland,” one of Springsteen’s most impassioned productions and which is referenced in a key scene in the film as a kind of central leitmotif. Javed’s metamorphosis into a Springsteen acolyte becomes almost embarrassing — those Bruce fans of a certain type will likely cringe in their seats. He and Roops shout down racist bullies with Springsteeen lyrics. They dance down the street to “Born to Run” and commandeer the school radio station to play all-Bruce all the time. The movie at times feels more like a promotional music video than a narrative film, so even when it veers back on the tracks and addresses Javed’s shakey relationship with his parents and his own post-high school goals, it seems to be striving for something way out of reach. The problem is that Springstreen’s music, his feelings, tend to overwhelm everything that comes into contact with it. The movies doesn’t stand a chance.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Chanter (050-6868-5001), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shibuya Cine Quinto (03-3477-5905), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

Blinded by the Light home page in Japanese

photo (c) BIF Bruce Limited 2019

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