Movie Review: Blinded By the Light (2019)
Bummer. I was rooting for this one.
It’s not like I didn’t enjoy the songs, or the enthusiasm, or the pride I felt that this 1980s Pakistani-British kid and his Sikh friend were bonkers for this very American icon and his very American songs. And it’s not like I didn’t flash back to my own period of Brucedom (1982-87), back when, really, all I wanted in life was to be able to make someone as happy as Bruce made me during, say, “Jersey Girl,” the B-side to “Cover Me.” Which I didn’t even know wasn’t a Springsteen song! It was Tom Waits! How did I not know that? I guess because the internet hadn’t been invented yet.
But I totally flashed back to all that—to waiting in line outside Dayton’s on a cold spring morning to get Springsteen concert tickets for the first leg of his “Born in the U.S.A.” tour, and seeing not one but two shows, including the filming of the “Dancing in the Dark” video with the then-unknown Courtney Cox. I thought of my friend Stu, who wanted to be Freehold, NJ in South Minneapolis, and Dave and Pete, senior year of high school, playing “Thunder Road” on the tapedeck in Dave’s car, and rolling down the windows in unison when Bruce sings “Roll down the windows and let the wind blow back your hair,” which I, in the back seat, thought looked so, so cool.
I flashed to all of this. But man is this a bad movie.
Madman drummers bummers
It begins with real issues (assimilation/first gen conflicts; racism and xenophobia in reactionary times) and gets saccharine and unbelievable fast. Half the movie feels like an exuberant music video, with words printed on the screen; the other half feels like something from the Lifetime channel.
Javed (Viveik Kaira) is a first-gen Pakistani kid growing up in the 1980s in Luton, England, with his mom, two sisters, a gregarious but strict dad, and not many friends. OK, so he’s still got childhood friend Matt, but Matt grows up to be a kind of spoiled, working class kid with poncy hair and make-up. He wants to be Duran Duran. Plus he’s played by Dean-Charles Chapman, who played the younger brother of Joffrey in “Game of Thrones.” I spent half the movie trying to figure out who he was and why he bugged me so.
As Javed begins senior year of high school, we see a series of problems he needs to deal with:
- National Front fucks in Thatcher’s England
The last is the most immediate. Coming home from school, he sees a skinhead spraypainting “PAKIS OUT,” or some such, on a neighbor’s garage. The skinhead stares him down, intimidates him, follows him back to the cul-de-sac where he lives. We expect more from this but it never arrives. We expect Javed to have to stand up to them, or one of them, but he doesn’t. That feels true anyway—it's easy to avoid fights: I know—but the issue isn’t really confronted. When NF fucks attack the father during the sister’s wedding, for example, Javed is off buying Springsteen concert tickets. So he feels guilty, right? Who knows? Because then Dad gets angry and tears up the concert tickets. Then Javed flies to America against his father’s wishes because he won an essay contest. He and his friend take pictures in all the Bruce spots. Wooooo! Then he returns, there’s a facile reconciliation with the father, but do we hear from the racists again? They just kind of fade away. Which, we've found out recently, racists never do.
Of the three dilemmas, girls turns out to be the easiest. Maybe because he’s a good writer or something, with a teacher, Ms. Clay (Hayley Atwell), forever pushing him to “find his own voice,” and who keeps entering his essays into contests that he keeps winning, and because of all of this, maybe, he wins over Eliza, the cute, feisty classmate he’s long had a crush on. (Eliza, by the way, is played by Nell Williams, who played the young Cersei in a throwback episode of “Game of Thrones.” Which means, in another world, his girlfriend gave birth to his best friend. Awkward.) But what do we know about Eliza? Anything? She’s just a prize.
Is it odd that in the U.K. in the fall of 1987 Springsteen is considered your dad’s rock ‘n’ roll? A bit. He was still charting and putting out platinum records in the U.K. Is it odd that Javed somehow got through junior high and high school in the 1980s without even hearing of him? Yes. Then he runs into a Sikh dude, Roops (Aaron Phagura), who lays some tapes on him, “The River” and “Darkness,” and who tells him, “Bruce is a direct line to all that’s true in this shitty world.” Javed is doubtful. He knows us? But once he plays him, Bruce takes over his life. He talks about him, writes about him, dresses like him, posters his walls with his posters, sings his songs, quotes his songs. It’s a bit much, to be honest.
I like that the lyrics are put on screen—that the words matter. I didn’t like how it became a music video; I didn’t like that the enthusiasm for the songs outstripped the movie’s logic. In one scene, Javed and Roops break into the school’s DJ station and put on “Born to Run,” to the consternation of the Pet Shop Boys-loving kid who runs it, and it blasts throughout the school. But their enthusiasm takes them outside the school, where ... they’re still singing the song? Are there speakers outside, too? Is this a Bollywood movie? Same at Saturday market. Javed is listening to a song (“Thunder Road”?), then he sees Eliza and begins singing it to her; then he’s joined by Matt’s dad (Rob Brydon in wig), and soon the whole Saturday market is singing it.
What’s the appeal of Springsteen anyway? In a broad sense, I think it’s twofold:
- The sense of being trapped
- The need to get out
That’s why he appeals to high schoolers. Springsteen mythologized the dissolute nothingness of high school and its aftermaths, paling around with Spanish Johnny, Hazy Davy and Bad Scooter, and going after girls like Rosy, Wendy, and of course Mary. Bruce mythologized breaking free: “It’s town full of losers, and I’m pulling out of here to win,” etc. He made this small life seem big and poetic. But getting out wasn’t an answer in itself, and eventually his working-class characters couldn’t even get the jobs they were running from. Springsteen’s songs began as poetry about youthful possibilities, and ended as prose about the dead ends of adulthood.
Above all there’s a yearning—generally for something that once existed or never will.
Indians in the summer
There’s some of this in the movie, but it’s a shame writer-director Gurinder Chadha (“Bend It Like Beckham”) didn’t underline how Bruce’s songs help push Javed toward Eliza (for the romance of it) and away from his father (because he’s the reason Javed feels trapped).
The father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), may be the movie’s biggest problem. He’s over-the-top in a way that’s uninteresting. He snatches Javed’s wages, forbids him going to parties, discourages his writing, doesn’t want him to go to a distinguished university since it’ll be away from the family. Then he wonders why he isn’t happy. The reconciliation, for both, is that Javed moves forward, and away, but doesn’t forget his family. As if that were ever a thing.
I didn’t even get to the elderly white neighbor who shows up periodically to give Javed a thumbs up.
“Blinded By the Light” is based on a true story but never feels true. It always feels like feel-good fantasy. It’s exactly what Springsteen’s music wasn’t.