So I actually saw this Monday night, at a screening that was promoted for Springsteen fans. I’m a fan of the Boss but my fandom does not go very deep. I probably would not be considered a true fan by most Springsteen devotees because I’ve never been to a live show and I don’t own every album. I do appreciate his music however and I did start listening to him in the 1970s so I do have a pretty good idea how some people can be affected by the music and spirit of the songs. The reason it took me three more days to post on this is simple, I exhausted a lot of my thoughts about this movie discussing it with my daughter right afterwards, and it has taken this long to get the steam up to actually write about the movie.
First of all, I’ve seen two previous films from director Gurinder Chadra, “Bend it Like Beckham” and “Bride and Prejudice”. I enjoyed the hell of them and have resisted each a couple of times. Her themes are heavily focused on the cultural divide, particularly between the British and those of her former colonies. That vein is rich enough to explore repeatedly, and this film does so also, no big surprise. What I did find surprising was how closely this movie matched “Bend it Like Beckham”. The story arc is exactly the same and the emotional beats are repeated in the same order as well. You simply switch the genders of the leads, and change from soccer to music and it is the same story. Now since seventeen years have intervened between the two films that may not seem like such a big deal, but it undermines the originality of the Springsteen premise and it is one of the things holding my evaluation of the film back a little bit.
The main subject of the disagreement I had with my daughter concerns the emotional beat at the end of the movie. There is a reconciliation between parent and child and she felt that moment was not earned. The lack of previous emotional engagement and empathy by our main character with his father, seemed to her to undermine the payoff and make it seem manipulative rather than organic. While I can see her point, I do think that there were some moments that would justify the turn at the end and because the father has been portrayed without any empathy for his son, it might be very natural for a son to fail to exhibit empathy himself prior to the climax. The other aspect of it that I am both pleased and annoyed with concerns the setting of that moment. As a public speaking instructor, I appreciate any time a speech is the focus of a dramatic story [See “Darkest Hour“]. That said, it is becoming a bit of a cliche that at the wedding, graduation, retirement party, birthday etc., someone will reveal an emotional epiphany during a speech with a large audience present to heighten the moment. It is a little contrived but it works which is why you see it so often.
Young Viveik Kalra plays the put upon and morose Javed, a Brit of Pakistani heritage who faces the difficult task of straddling two cultures and having a hard time finding himself in either one. When an acquaintance, Roops, introduces him to the music of American Bruce Springsteen, suddenly Javed begins to take root in something more personal. Like a lot of fans, he goes overboard but he is not wrong in seeing his life in the music and lyrics of the Boss. The things that make this film delightful are those moments of transition. He hears the music in his head, we see the lyrics on the screen in interesting inserts and the settings reflect the inner voice. Sometimes the self reflection is a little too on the nose and angsty. Like all teen movies however, from “Blackboard Jungle”, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”, “The Breakfast Club”, and this year’s “Booksmart“, there is a tendency to do that, again, to heighten our emotional reaction.
“Blinded By the Light” is filled with some charming characters as well. Javed’d childhood friend Matt, is an aspiring musician who is deep into the synth pop of the late 1980s. Eliza is the rebellious classmate that Javed falls for and her knee jerk political interpretation of the world is amusing at times. Matt’s Dad is an old school rock type who identifies more with Javed than his own son, and apparently his Dad style joshing is a little too hard for Matt to take. Best of all however is the elderly neighbor who imparts some great words of wisdom into the story and provides the ray of light that might have been snuffed out by some heavy handed social commentary.
The best moment in the movie for me involved a joyous fantasy sequence where Javed and Roops take control of the school radio program and play an unauthorized set of Springsteen for the classes. I was afraid I might have embarrassed my daughter because I found myself singing the lyrics out loud along with the Boss on screen. The exuberance of the moment, by the three young characters and the choice of song, were irresistible to me. The film may have some flaws but what ever missteps it takes are usually compensated for with a great piece of music and a clever scripted moment every few scenes.
There is one warning I have to give however. There is an ugly equivocation of 1980s political thought with racism and intolerance. The loathsome National Front Youth movement is implied as an extension of Thatcherism and that is appalling. The suggestion that the source of economic misery were the policies of the government is front and center in the last part of the film. The teacher at the school takes a straightforward political position on a financial point and that is a legitimate idea expressed by the character and the film makers. However, the heavy handed symbolism of the National Front assholes giving a Nazi salute is juxtaposed with images of Thatcher and Reagan waving at an audience and it is an ugly piece of political hyperbole that dampened the story. The caricature of Eliza’s parents, the conservatives, as passive racists is also a bit distasteful but probably within the bounds of the story telling. If you can leave aside the unnecessary political potshots at historical figures, you will enjoy the film. It’s not perfect but I loved most of it.