Synopsis: In 1987 during the austere days of Thatcher’s Britain, a teenager learns to live life, understand his family and find his own voice through the music of Bruce Springsteen.
Stars: Viveik Kalra, Kulvinder Ghir, Meera Ganatra, Nell Williams, Aaron Phagura, Hayley Atwell, Dean-Charles Chapman
Director: Gurinder Chadha
Running Length: 117 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review: I suppose it’s nice to know that in this climate of constant disagreement, there is something we can find common ground on. Though we may not be able to see eye to eye on politics or the environment it seems that we all can agree that Bruce Springsteen is, in fact, The Boss. The New Jersey singer/songwriter that experienced his, ahem, glory days in the mid ‘70s through the late ‘80s and has enjoyed a steady career since has a way of unifying even the most contrarian among us. A 2016 biography of his rough upbringing was a national bestseller and a subsequent solo show on Broadway was the hottest ticket in town.
Ever since Bohemian Rhapsody became an unlikely hit (like, totally unlikely given how bad it really is) there’s hope that even the smallest bit of rock and roll nostalgia will equate to big box office. May’s Rocketman, a musical biography of Elton John, was an absolute delight and danced circles around Bohemian Rhapsody but it didn’t have the same staying power and though Yesterday marketed itself as a light-hearted romantic fantasy set to a Beatles score, in actuality it was a total misfire that was sent back to Abbey Road without any fanfare. I haven’t checked lately, but I’m sure other long gestating projects inspired by the songbooks of classic musicians gained some traction thanks to the Freddie Mercury/Queen film.
All that being said, it’s easy to see why Blinded by the Light is hoping to draw those Springsteen fans in based solely on name recognition alone. Yet, like Yesterday, filmgoers are getting the old switcheroo and are in for a movie that feels different than what was advertised. Far from the breezy and fun promise put forth in the trailer, this film that was inspired by a true story goes in hard on tired tropes and an astounding amount of cliché. I arrived at the screening knowing nothing about the movie so had no preconceived notions of what to expect and was still left feeling let down.
It’s 1987 and Javed (Viveik Kalra) is coming of age in a small town in England. This is during the time of Margaret Thatcher when the economic situation for the middle class was turning dire and the racial tension against non-British was heating up. Living with his traditional Pakistani parents who work tirelessly to make ends meet, Javed hides a secret wish to become a writer. Composing poetry in the privacy of his room and away from the watchful eye of his strict father (Kulvinder Ghir), Javed’s world is changed when a classmate gives him a Bruce Springsteen cassette. By this point, Springsteen was already a worldwide sensation with numerous number one hits…and he’s also seen by the teens of the time as old news. So when Javed starts to dress like Bruce and quote his lyrics like scripture, it doesn’t get him a free pass to sit at the cool kids table.
Director Gurinder Chadha (Bend it Like Beckham) can’t seem to find an element of the movie to hone directly in on so everything plays a bit like an episodic chapter book. Secondary characters like Hayley Atwell (Avengers: Endgame) waltz in and out of the action at will and it creates a disjointed feel that interrupts any rhythm the director is going for. That’s partly on Chadha the director but mostly on Chadha the screenwriter and her co-writers Paul Mayeda Berges and Sarfraz Manzoor. There isn’t a stereotypical stone unturned in Javed’s rebellion against his father and no development that isn’t telegraphed well in advance. While this isn’t a spoiler review site, if I told you the climax of the movie hinges on a Big Speech Javed gives that suddenly, somehow, opens the eyes, ears, and hearts of those that previously didn’t understand him…would you be at all surprised?
That’s all fine because, you know what, there’s space for these kind of formulaic films as well but it’s all in the execution and Kalra simply isn’t a compelling enough lead for us to care if he gets to go to Springsteen concert or not. It’s strange, as an audience member I never seemed to be on his side when the movie truly wanted us to be. The lucky thing for Kalra is that Chada has cast the engaging Ghir as his withering father and the memorable Meera Ganatra as his strong-willed mother. Ganatra’s quiet pain when her husband loses his job and she has to sell off her wedding ring to help pay the bills is heartbreaking…I kept wanting to know what kind of music SHE was listening to.
The oddest thing about Chadha’s film is that it so desperately wants to be a musical that it almost can’t help itself. One musical interlude with Javed, his friend, and a punk girl he develops feelings for, is modestly entertaining but clumsily performed. I kept feeling like if Chadha had gone all the way with incorporating more of Springsteen’s music into the movie as fantasy sequences or with more creativity (and not just having his animated lyrics flying around the screen) the film would have garnered more interest. At nearly two hours, it was frankly a bit of a bore to sit through.
A biographical film of Bruce Springsteen will most certainly get made but who knows when that will be. Until then, it’s unfortunate that Blinded by the Light is the only movie out there representing The Boss’s work because it lacks the same forthrightness that have made his songs enduring classics. While it’s endearing to see how the blue collar musician’s music stretched over the pond and had an impact on the life of another and empowered him to aspire higher, the workmanlike delivery by the filmmakers keeps it frustratingly grounded.