Wednesday, August 7, 2019


by Rob DiCristino
“Cause tramps like us,
Baby, we were born to run.”

Roger Ebert said that movies are like machines that generate empathy. That same sentiment could be extended, he’d likely agree, to music: When you’re in love, every love song is about your partner. When you’re hurting, every bleeding anthem is about your unbearable pain. When you’re on a Greek island trying to decide which of three possible suitors is your biological father, every song from the Mamma Mia! soundtrack is about your struggle. The right melody gets your fists pumping. The right lyric makes your heart break. While it can sometimes require a bit of semantic gymnastics (say that five times fast), you can make pretty much any song about you and your feelings. That’s the beautiful thing about art of any kind, really: Regardless of the context, intent, or time period of its inception, great art is universal. You don’t need to be a musician or a filmmaker or a painter or an architect or a master chef to appreciate the true genius of their creations. They’re made for all of us. They’re perpetual, immortal.
That sense of universal appreciation is at the core of Blinded by the Light. Directed and co-written by Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham) and based on Sarfraz Manzoor’s 2008 memoir, Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion, and Rock N’ Roll, it’s the story of Javed (Viviek Kalra), an aspiring writer of Pakistani descent growing up in late 1980s England. Feeling suffocated by his parents’ strict traditions, his anti-immigrant neighbors, and the general economic hopelessness of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, Javed finds inspiration in the music of Bruce Springsteen. It’s an odd pairing, he admits at first, with family and friends alike questioning the Pakistani Brit’s obsession with a white man from New Jersey. But through the eyes of The Boss, Javed sees beauty in the darkness. He sees a way out of his nowhere town. He sees the light in classmate Eliza’s (Nell Williams) eyes. Egged on by Springsteen-loving buddy Roops (Aaron Phagura) and English teacher Ms. Clay (Hayley Atwell), Javed realizes that he, too, was born to run.

One denim jacket and a few tied handkerchiefs later, Javed is preaching the Jersey gospel to anyone who will listen, finally finding the courage to damn the man and kiss the girl. He’s writing new poetry in earnest and pushing back against what he considers the mindless synth-pop of his peers. But writing won’t pay the bills, his father (Kulvinder Ghir) reminds him. It won’t reopen the auto plant, pay for his sister’s wedding, or stop the fascist National Front from spray-painting swastikas on his family’s home. Social and political unrest color nearly every frame of Blinded by the Light: Eliza is a rabble-rousing activist with hilariously-uptight Tory parents, Javed’s younger sister (Nikita Mehta as Shazia) is a closet rave rat, and a key scene concerns a literal culture clash between white nationalists and Pakistanis. Not content to merely celebrate Springsteen’s music on its soundtrack, Blinded by the Light’s story eagerly incorporates the themes of loneliness, heartsickness, and lost identity that made him a working-class hero.
But as much as Javed may still be frustrated by these roadblocks, his connection to his hero’s poetry at least gives him the words with which to process that frustration. That connection, appropriately enough, is all-consuming. Blinded by the Light can’t seem to decide if it’s a musical or not — there doesn’t seem to be any line between diegetic and non-diegetic music, and the “dancing on-screen lyrics” gimmick seems to come and go at will — but unlike the self-congratulatory Beatles adulation of Yesterday (to which this film will no doubt be compared), Blinded by the Light captures the true isolation of obsession. Javed starts finding it really, really difficult to talk to people who don’t speak Bruce, and would-be girlfriend Eliza finds his constant lyrical digressions equal parts endearing and unsettling. Chadha, Manzoor, and co-screenwriter Paul Mayeda Berges seem to know exactly how it feels to fall down an artistic rabbit hole, to get a song stuck in your head and find yourself listening to it over and over again for days just to get it out of there.
Speaking of “over and over again,” however, the major glaring strike against Blinded by the Light is that it’s a solid thirty minutes too long. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a lengthy film (2019’s Avengers: Endgame and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood both clock in around three hours), but there are only so many Flock of Seagulls haircut gags and parental scoldings about duty and cultural tradition an audience can take over the course of two hours before things start to become tedious. Worse, the same three or four Springsteen songs are needle-dropped multiple times, muddling their thematic intent and making the wheel-spinning of the middle act even more apparent. One big musical number in the first hour leads us to expect there’ll be another at some point, but none materialize. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it is frustrating. Ultimately, Blinded by the Light is a bit of an aimless mess with its heart in the right place. It’s like a river that don’t know where it’s flowing, takes a wrong turn, and just keeps going. As a love letter to Springsteen, that feels just about right.

1 comment:

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