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‘Blinded by the Light’ ain’t nothing but tired

| Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Claire Kopischke | The Observer

Gurinder Chadha’s new film “Blinded by the Light” is marked by an artificial joyfulness that is infectious in the same way that the common cold is. Like the Bruce Springsteen song from which it takes its name, the picture has some passages that are thrilling in the moment — but seem hazier the second you turn away. Protagonist Javed Khan (played with genuine charm by newcomer Viveik Kalra) is a repressed teenager living with his Pakistani family in Thatcher-era England. On top of dealing with all of the fiscal and discriminatory struggles such a situation entails, Javed must also contend with his own father’s expectations — namely, for him to put down his beloved poetry and focus on a ‘real’ education like economics. As pressure mounts on all sides, Javed begins to wish he were someone else, somewhere else. In other words, he wants to change his clothes, his hair, his face. If only he could stumble upon a songwriter who knew a thing or two about that.

Javed’s sudden obsession with Springsteen forms the crux of the movie, but Chadha and screenwriter Sarfraz Manzoor, who based the movie on his own adolescence, don’t trust the audience to believe such at face value. It is not enough that we see the steadily increasing number of Springsteen posters on Javed’s wall; we must also be privy to the repetitions of the same conversation where he constantly reiterates just how important Bruce’s songs are to him. In one particularly groan-inducing scene, the lyrics of “The Promised Land” are emblazoned across the screen, giving off the uncomfortable impression of an inner monologue via PowerPoint. Therein lies one of the film’s many issues: any insight the audience may gain about how Javed thinks and feels is instead substituted with Springsteen’s lyrics.  

It doesn’t help that the best two scenes, both involving Javed’s woefully underwritten family, have nothing to do with Springsteen or Javed. In one sequence, Javed’s sister sneaks into an underground club and dances to the bhangra track “Maar Chadapa;” in the other, Mr. Khan’s financial and family problems are set against the Punjabi music he listens to. Both scenes depict a character’s interest in music and allow the audience to draw a connection between the two, whereas Javed’s scenes bludgeon the viewers over the head with affected depth.  

The beauty of Springsteen’s best albums come from their interplay between loud and quiet moments. Think of the asinine teenage poetry of “Born To Run” giving way to the noir-inflected “Meeting Across The River,” or how the seething, sensual “I’m On Fire” eventually leads into the gratingly ‘faux-stalgiac’ “Glory Days.” “Blinded By The Light” has far too many loud moments, and not enough quiet ones. A sequence where Javed charms a girl by singing “Thunder Road” to her is winning enough — but racial violence set to “Jungleland?” Not so much.

Even though it’s obsessed with his music, “Blinded by the Light” learns all the wrong lessons from Bruce Springsteen’s songs. As the Boss himself may put it, the film is like a river that don’t know where it’s flowing — it takes a wrong turn and just keeps going.

Documentary: “Blinded by the Light”

Starring: Viveik Kalra, Kulvinder Ghir

Director: Gurinder Chadha

If you like: “Sing Street,” “Bend it Like Beckham”

Stars: 2 out of 5

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