When the forces of the universe collide and you have the good fortune to approach the right piece of art at the right age, something magical happens. For some of us, that means getting handed a well-worn copy of The Clash’s self-titled album from a cool older cousin; for others, it means stumbling across a repertory screening of, say, Wings of Desire at the local arthouse cinema. I’m just not so sure I see that happening for anyone with Gurinder Chadha’s all-too-slight, all-too-bright Blinded by the Light, an ode to the (truly) life-changing power of Bruce Springsteen’s music.
The script is based on the real-life obsession journalist Sarfraz Manzoor had with Springsteen’s music as a gangly 16-year-old growing up in Luton, England, an entire ocean away from Springsteen’s hometown of Long Branch, N.J. In the script he co-wrote with Chadha and Paul Mayeda Berges (Chadha’s longtime collaborator on films like Bend It Like Beckham and Bride and Prejudice), Manzoor’s surrogate is named Javed (newcomer Viveik Kalra), and he’s an aspiring writer who receives very little encouragement from his family — especially his father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), who believes that his son should be pursuing a more practical, less fanciful career path and is constantly reminding his wife and children that he’s in charge.
Javed is constantly made to feel like an outsider inside his family home, but there’s also trouble brewing outside of it. After all, the year is 1987, Margaret Thatcher is in power, and hate-filled right-wingers roam the streets making life a living hell for the wave of Pakistani immigrants who had arrived in the wake of World War II and the breakup of the British empire. Frustrated by his father’s strict rules and narrow vision for him, as well as his lack of an avenue to pursue his craft further, Javed is in the perfect state of mind to absorb every lyric from Born in the U.S.A. after his new friend Roops (a fellow child of East Asian immigrants) loans him the cassette.
From the opening notes of “Born in the U.S.A.” to the final chords of “My Hometown,” Javed is transfixed, and he’s found a new spiritual home — something Chadha and her collaborators take great pains to hammer home by juxtapose artfully arranged lyrics over the action as he listens. The device feels a bit too on the nose from the jump, and if you don’t like it early on, you’re definitely not going to appreciate it as the film continues to trot it out to diminishing effect. Same with the characters increasingly breaking out in song while out and about living their daily lives. (I will admit I’m not exactly the audience for a lighthearted jukebox musical.)
Emboldened and invigorated by Springsteen’s music (as well as the encouragement of his English teacher), Javed defies his father’s wishes and begins to put his writing out for the world to see. He feels on top of the world for a time, beginning a courtship with a girl at his school and winning a prestigious writing contest that allows him to make a pilgrimage to New Jersey — if only his father would let him go. This is all set against a backdrop of increasing anti-immigrant sentiments in Luton, which comes to a boil with a violent protest held in front of the family’s mosque.
That the film wants to tackle such important issues is laudable, but the uneasy blend of mega-lite comedy and heavy-handed drama, obvious plot points, and paper-thin characters makes for a frustrating viewing experience — especially when earlier films like My Beautiful Laundrette and Letter to Brezhnev captured life in Thatcher-era England with so much more nuance. Obviously Bruce disagrees with me, though, as he allowed the filmmakers to use a dozen of his songs onscreen, and who am I to argue with The Boss?