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Quite a few years ago, I was at the Brattle Theatre watching John Ford’s 1940 adaptation of “The Grapes of Wrath.” There weren’t many people in attendance but those of us who were sat in rapt attention and respectful silence, right up until Henry Fonda recited Steinbeck’s famous speech at the end — you know, the one Springsteen sings in “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” All of the sudden, from the back of the balcony, a voice bellowed out “BRUUUUUUUUUCE!”
When I tell my friends this story, the only thing that surprises them is that I wasn’t the one doing the “Bruce-ing.” I’ve seen Springsteen in concert 26 times in five different states and could quite happily bore you for hours on end with minutiae regarding band lineups, bootlegs and other unheralded aspects of E Street history. I once went to a Joe Grushecky show at a Jersey Shore nightclub because of rumors that his buddy Bruce might show up (he didn’t), and in 2003, I maxed out a credit card to see The Boss do a solo acoustic benefit for the now-defunct DoubleTake Magazine at the Somerville Theatre.
Given all this, one would assume that I’m the ideal audience for “Blinded by the Light,” director Gurinder Chadha’s strenuously crowd-pleasing chronicle of a second-generation Pakistani teen whose obsession with Springsteen helps him find his voice during the dark days of Thatcher’s England. Loosely based on journalist Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir “Greetings from Bury Park,” the movie is a brightly-colored, overly-effusive affair preaching the gospel of Bruce. In many ways, it’s nearly a replica of Chadha’s 2002 smash “Bend it Like Beckham,” just as relentlessly upbeat and occasionally embarrassing. To be honest, I spent at least half of the running time rolling my eyes, but every once in a while it won me over.
Newcomer Viveik Kalra stars as Javed, a wannabe poet growing up in the ground-down factory town of Luton circa 1987. His overbearing father (Kulvinder Ghir) just got laid off from the Vauxhall plant and is pushing his boy towards a boring career in business, away from all this writing nonsense. Javed’s miserable at school and at home, with their racist pit of a neighborhood so fired up by the National Front that the local kids take turns urinating through the mail slots of immigrant family houses. It’s only when his Sikh pal Roops (Aaron Phagura) slips him cassette copies of “Darkness on the Edge of Town” and “Born in the U.S.A.” that our meek young man begins to stand up for himself.
The movie’s most potent scene occurs after yet another family argument, when a furious Javed slaps on his headphones and hears “The Promised Land” for the very first time. As he rages in the night, the lyrics appear as onscreen text like they’re erupting from his consciousness: “Sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode/ Explode and tear this whole town apart/ Take a knife and cut this pain from my heart/ Find somebody itching for something to start...”
It’s quite a thing when you’re young and misunderstood to discover a voice that articulates everything you can’t just yet. (This is why as teens we often construct our identities around shared pop culture interests, communicating through quotes and music mixes to let artists express that which we’re unable to say.) For all its missteps, “Blinded by the Light” really gets this formative phenomenon — the sweet relief of hearing something like “Dancing in the Dark” and feeling less alone in the world for at least the length of a record. Sometimes you need a stranger to tell you it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.
Unfortunately Chadha, working once again with her husband and co-screenwriter Paul Mayeda Berges, has fed Manzoor’s memoir through a one-size-fits-all coming-of-age movie meat grinder, complete with clichés like an inspirational teacher (Haley Atwell) and the apparently now mandatory mawkish reconciliation via essay contest scene, complete with a slow clap from formerly disapproving audience members.
But maybe their most distracting decision is positioning Springsteen — who, when the film is set, was riding high off his best-selling album and the most successful stadium tour of his career — as something of a has-been. Javed and Roops are roundly mocked by their classmates for listening to this old fogey, and our boys have to break into the school radio station to play his records. We’re told time and again that these darn kids hate Bruce because they’ll only listen to music made with synthesizers (um, has anyone actually heard “Born in the U.S.A.”?) and, in one scene, we are expected to believe that a Springsteen concert didn’t sell a single ticket in a London suburb.
I assume this is probably a writer’s device to supply Javed and Roops with more underdog cred, as if being two scrawny brown kids in a city riddled with skinheads wasn’t already enough. Chadha has said that she made this film in response to Brexit and all the ugly anti-immigrant sentiment that has resurfaced in recent years. (It’s a sour sign of the times that the specter of white supremacist violence looms so large over a goofy, good-natured musical.) I don’t think she sells the staging, but a scene in which our heroes shout the lyrics to “Badlands” in the faces of two neo-Nazi knobs carries an undeniable kick.
Chadha doesn’t quite have the chops to pull off the more ambitious musical numbers. I probably could have gone the rest of my life without seeing Rob Brydon in a mullet wig belting out “Thunder Road,” and an exuberant montage set to “Born to Run” illustrates why nobody ever uses that song in movies. It overpowers the images — the wall of sound so massive and grand it makes any accompanying visuals look chintzy and threadbare.
“Blinded by the Light” means awfully well, and there’s something to be said for the positivity with which it illustrates how art can foster a feeling of community across all sorts of cultural divides. Sometimes, I was quite touched by the ways in which Javed found strength through the Springsteen songs I love so dearly. Other times, the movie made me understand why my ex used to get so bored and ask me to please talk about something else besides Bruce.
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