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Blinded by the Light

Musical biopics are all the rage right now. By taking the tumultuous life story of a beloved pop culture figure and cramming it into the boilerplate biopic format, these films can cash in on nostalgia and chase Oscar gold with ease. Though I don’t think it would be entirely fair to lay this at the feet of Bohemian Rhapsody Rocketman was already long in development when that movie hit, and we got Straight Outta Compton a good three years prior — I think it’s safe to assume we’re going to see a lot more of them trying to ride those coattails.

So here’s Blinded by the Light, fictionalizing the teenage years of journalist Sarfraz Manzoor (the protagonist here is named Javed Khan, played by Viveik Kalra), who’s seen Springsteen in concert 150 times. It’s immediately obvious that this is only very loosely based on any actual life story, yet the film still claims “inspired by a true story” biopic status. And of course Springsteen’s music features prominently throughout. Thus the filmmakers cash in on the musician biopic trend without actually making a musician biopic (see also: Yesterday and the Mama Mia! sequel).

Our protagonist is a Pakistani Muslim teenager growing up in the UK. His coming of age begins in earnest when he finds an interest in Western culture (specifically the music of Bruce Springsteen), to the immediate disapproval of his overbearing family, who insist that he immerse himself in Pakistani culture and values to the exclusion of all else. Thus our main character has to grow into his own while being torn between his family and his passion.

Who made this movie, again? The same writer/director/producer who made Bend it Like Beckham? Yeah, I thought it sounded familiar.

To be entirely fair, there are some key differences. Probably foremost among them is that this film is set clearly and firmly in 1987. While this of course means that the ’80s nostalgia is prominent from the opening credits onward, this also puts us squarely in the Margaret Thatcher regime. Cold War tensions are running high, unemployment is skyrocketing, and any Muslims and/or people of color are in constant danger from all the white nationalists running wild. All of this should sound familiar, and it gives many scenes a timely punch.

It also directly impacts the plot in a huge way, as Javed’s father (Malik, played by Kulvinder Ghir) is laid off early in the first act. He’s still the patriarch who rules over his family with an iron fist. He’s the only one in his family who’s allowed to have any kind of opinion. Everyone in the family has to work hard so that he can pay the bills and put food on the table. And yet of everyone in the family, he’s the only one not making any money. It’s certainly not for lack of trying or love for his family, but it’s still a rank hypocrisy on his part, and a crippling blow to the fragile ego of a man for whom control is everything.

It certainly doesn’t help that Malik doesn’t think of writing as an actual career, he doesn’t approve of anything American, and he doesn’t want any Pakistanis drawing attention from all the dangerous racists out there. Contrast this with Javed’s gradual development into a legit writer, making money and speaking his truth to the world. Yes, it’s easy to see where Malik is coming from — he’s a product of his generation and his sacrifices as an immigrant, and the filmmakers do everything they can to sell the threat of Neo-Nazis within the confines of a PG-13 rating. Even so, the movie is explicit in taking Javed’s side on pretty much everything.

While this intra-family conflict does have some deeply moving beats, it also makes for an uneven plot. It’s easy to lose track of where Javed and Malik are in terms of their relationship, because it tends to whiplash from one status to another, depending on the needs of the plot. This is especially prominent in the thoroughly broken third act, in which the father and son inevitably reconcile without either one of them truly earning it or getting to that point in any plausible way.

In the climax, Javed states that he’s very much like his father, but doesn’t make a convincing argument as to how. We see a lot of Malik being stubbornly miserable without his son, but we don’t see anything of vice versa. And when an olive branch to the family is finally extended, it doesn’t come from Javed, but from his love interest (more on her later), who had absolutely no reason for doing so at that point in the story. Far too often, these things simply happen because it’s a two-hour film and the story beats have to be hit like clockwork, regardless of what makes sense in the moment.

While the film is great about Javed’s conflicts with his family, his heritage, and his crippling lack of self-confidence, there are way too many times when the movie lets him off too easily. It’s frankly absurd how many great opportunities simply fall into Javed’s lap because he’s supposed to be that darn great at writing, and how many times he gets out of all trouble just by throwing Bruce Springsteen lyrics at any given problem.

Even in those times when Javed is taken to task, it comes with some major caveats. A prime example comes when Javed skips out of his sister’s wedding to buy Bruce Springsteen tickets. On the one hand, as a character rightly points out, who does that?! But on the other hand, it’s Javed’s money and he has every right to decide what to do with it. And if spending it pisses off his uptight family, so much the better. Thus the film sides with Javed, perhaps more than it really should have.

Another great example concerns a subplot with Javed’s childhood best friend (Matt, played by Dean-Charles Chapman). There’s a rift between them because Matt plays in an ’80s synth-heavy pop band while Javed is obsessed with the ’70s rock stylings of Bruce Springsteen. Eventually, Javed has to get his head out of his ass and accept that synth pop is no less valid as a musical genre, and is indeed every bit as worthy because it speaks to Matt like Springsteen speaks to Javed. In the middle of a movie so wildly obsessed with Bruce Springsteen, coming from a character obsessed with the musician to such an unhealthy degree, it was good of the movie to comment on that.

The unfortunate drawback is that this subplot only works if Javed and Matt are lifelong best friends. And these two actors just aren’t selling it. Maybe it’s because the two of them have so little chemistry, maybe it’s because they don’t have enough screen time together, maybe it’s because we see so little of them having fun together, but this relationship simply does not work.

Speaking of which, let’s circle back to the love interest. Eliza (Nell Williams) is a teenage firebrand with a passion for liberal activism. She barely makes any kind of impression. All the character’s politics can’t make up for a lack of personality. Williams is clearly trying her hardest, but she’s got no screen presence and her chemistry with Kalra is nowhere near where it needed to be.

Luckily, there are some legitimately solid talents in the supporting cast. Rob Brydon appears for a brief but welcome bit of comic relief as Matt’s father. Hayley Atwell is on hand as Javed’s writing mentor — it’s a thin and cliched role, but Atwell is playing it with all her heart and soul. Aaron Phagura does pretty well as the Pakistani who first introduces Javed to Springsteen, though his costume is doing most of the performing for him. Meera Ganatra gets a couple of small yet brilliant scenes as Javed’s mother.

Then we have the real MVP: Kulvinder Ghir as Malik Khan. This could’ve so easily been a cliched one-note character in a movie already full of them, but Ghir has the character nailed from start to finish. It really is impressive how Ghir keeps the character sympathetic, making his pain and fatherly affection known at all times without ever losing sight of his pride and hypocrisy. It’s amazing work.

And what of Viveik Kalra? Well, he does a pretty decent job on his own. He’s entirely capable of carrying a film, and he serviceably portrays the character through every step of a long and dynamic (if boilerplate) development arc. Trouble is — as I’ve already stated a few times — he’s cinematic Teflon. Save only for Ghir, he’s got no chemistry with anyone else in the cast.

Oh, and there’s Bruce Springsteen music in this picture. I should probably get to that.

To start with, there’s the fact that Springsteen is an American with rock music out of the ’70s. This makes him an outsider to ’80s-era Britain, every bit as much as Javed himself is an outsider. Yet great art is timeless and universal, making statements that apply across all times and places. Not that I’m comparing Bruce Springsteen to Shakespeare or Dickens, you understand, but that’s implicitly what the film does.

On the one hand, I totally get the theme of art transcending barriers, serving as a bridge between cultures. On the other hand, there’s one point when a character asks if a white guy from New Jersey can ever really speak for Pakistani Muslims in the UK, and the question is brushed off. In a time when greater cultural representation in media is such a hot button topic, it seems tone-deaf to ignore the question so brazenly. Then again, this is a movie about Pakistani Muslims written/directed/produced by a Pakistani Muslim woman, so maybe the film is making a statement on the topic simply by existing.

More importantly, there’s the matter of Springsteen’s music and why it means so much to our protagonist. How it teaches him valuable life lessons, why it speaks to him so strongly, how it motivates him to be a stronger and more confident man. All of this is expertly sold by the film.

Unfortunately, the filmmakers didn’t have time to answer a very important question: Does Javed Khan have any personality or identity to speak of, aside from his love of The Boss? Yes, the film could talk for days about how Springsteen’s music gave Javed the strength to break free and figure out who he is, but that doesn’t count for much when we never really get to see who he grows into. If he’s nothing more than a slavish devotee of Bruce Springsteen, is that really any better than being a slavish devotee of his dad?

Blinded by the Light is harmless. At its best, the film is genuinely heartfelt and uplifting. At its worst, the film is merely threadbare and cliched. While the lead characters are rock solid and there are a lot of fascinating themes here, too many supporting characters are thinly developed and too many potentially wonderful thematic points are half-baked. That’s not even getting started on the disjointed plot or that wreck of a third act.

It’s disappointing how the movie spreads itself so thin that it has to rely on well-worn cliches and played-out story beats to serve as a shorthand. It’s a damn shame the filmmakers overextended themselves in trying to craft an Oscar contender when it easily could have (and should have) been a two-hour piece of cinematic late-August comfort food.

I’m sincerely glad I didn’t give the movie a shot until the first run had played out, because no way was it worth opening ticket prices. It’s absolutely worth a second-run viewing or a DVD screening, though.

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