Friday, May 24, 2019

Hope That Can Save Me: Springsteen-Inspired 'Blinded By the Light' Largely Blinds Me with Delight -- Movie Review

Movie Review + Screening Recap

Blinded by the Light
inspired by a true story and the
words & music of Bruce Springsteen
directed by Gurinder Chadha
Seen May 22 at the Music Box Theatre, Chicago
as part of the Chicago Critics Film Festival
Wide U.S. release: August 14, 2019

It's honestly an infrequent occurrence, and allergies were assuredly messing with my tear ducts, but I can't deny that Blinded by the Light made me cry.

This doesn't inherently bespeak a sensational movie, but what a British-Pakistani teen named Javed (newcomer Viveik Kalra, who was on-hand for the screening) experiences onscreen--loneliness, ostracism, fierce arguments with his dad, a love of writing--was quite closely in concert with my own life, around the same time. (The movie is set in 1987-88)

And, along with a few kindred friends, relatives and teachers, Javed's foremost coping--and hoping--mechanism was quite literally mine as well, the music of Bruce Springsteen.

I don't know that I ever thrashed about in a raging windstorm as the lyrics of "The Promised Land" swept past my head--such as in one of director Gurinder Chadha's most imaginative scenes--but countless are the times when blasting "Badlands," "Backstreets" or "Born to Run" on a Walkman (or Discman, iPod, iPhone, etc.) got me through a lonesome day or restless night.

So yes, I arrived at the glorious Music Box Theatre for a screening of Blinded by the Light as part of the Chicago Critics Film Festival--about 4 months after the film premiered at Sundance and roughly 3 before it opens nationwide--as definitively part of the target audience. (In a rather cool story, Bruce gave permission for his music to be used in the film, but wasn't otherwise involved in its creation.)

While I do believe that the movie has cinematic, storytelling and thematic merits well beyond its extolling of the Boss, my devout fandom undoubtedly had much to with my appreciation...and waterworks.

Chadha herself, in directing 2002's Bend It Like Beckham, already told a compelling tale about an Asian teen in Britain finding her passion and purpose--in that case, playing soccer--at odds with the traditional values and trepidations of her parents.

For me, Blinded by the Light also conjured 2016's Sing Street, which focuses on a 1980s Dublin teen who starts a band and seeks to find his voice, driven by quarreling parents, an older brother who turns him onto Duran Duran, The Cure, etc. and a girl he wishes to woo.

Embodied by the delightful Nell Williams as Eliza, Blinded by the Light also traipses in young love.

Believe me, I'd love to suggest that this film should have widespread appeal as it celebrates the "We'll keep pushin' till it's understood and these badlands start treating us good" messaging of Bruce's music that emboldens Javed, not to mention me, journalist & Springsteen superfan Sarfraz Manzoor--upon whose memoir, Greetings from Bury Park, the movie is based--and millions of Boss fans worldwide.

Thematically, it's fairly easy to imagine Javed's transformation representing that of anyone of any persuasion or psyche finding meaning, strength, joy and sustenance in the music of Madonna or Prince or The Who or The Clash or Public Enemy or Stephen Sondheim or anyone else.

The essence of what Javed experiences after another Asian student, Roops (Aaron Phagura, who's a delight), loans him cassette copies of Born in the U.S.A. and Darkness on the Edge of Town--and, straining credulity for me, doesn't insist on getting them back as weeks past--is universal.

Or at least I hope it is, given what music--and not just that of Bruce--has meant to my existence.

But the soundtrack of Blinded by the Light is comprised predominantly (if not quite exclusively) by 17 or 18 songs by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

Some are heard in full, even getting video montage treatments, while a few are limited to snippets.

I imagine for Springsteen fanatics much of the appeal of this film will be in experiencing how the songs fit in--and I hope newcomers will be grasped by Bruce's working man demanding dignity, hard charging musical heroism--so I won't divulge much.

As revealed in the Warner Bros. film's official trailer, "Dancing in the Dark" and "The Promised Land" are rather prominently featured, and I wish to give props to how Chadha--who wrote the film with Manzoor and Paul Mayeda Berges--slides in "Jungleland" during scenes of ugly unrest and racism during Maggie Thatcher's Britain.

For my money, quite a good bit of which has gone toward seeing Springsteen 50 times to date--which is a third of the reported Boss concert tally of Manzoor--I wish Blinded by the Light could have given Javed a bit more exposure to Bruce's transcendence as a live performer, for as much as I love the man's music, it's his tireless marathons (always with a warm smile on his face) that made me reverential by the time I was 15.

With due respect to the Rolling Stones, Clash, Who, Ramones, Paul McCartney, Pearl Jam, the immortal James Brown, Prince or anyone else I--and/or you--love, I believe Bruce Springsteen to the best live rock 'n roll performer of all-time, by a wide margin.

Uncertain about a thread in the film that may enable Javed to attend an E Street Band show in London on the Tunnel of Love Express Tour, I asked the engaging Viveik Kalra about it during a Q&A after the show.

Without wishing to spoil much, let's just say that Kalra admitted he hadn't before pondered the gist of my question, but rued the sparsity of his experiencing Bruce in concert as part of the movie.

Beyond that, certain aspects of Blinded by the Light feel a touch contrived--and largely predictable--while some film purists or Springsteen naysayers will conceivably blanch at how exaggerated the movie feels at times.

There is quite a bit of exuberant running, gesticulating, even some rule-breaking, but I largely found the visual hyperbole fitting with the feelings of fledgling love, whether for a boy, girl or musician.

The domineering father, particularly of East Asian heritage (played here by Kulvinder Ghir, paired nicely with Meera Ganatra as Javed's mom) feels like an archetype I've seen sufficiently before--though in Bend It Like Beckham it's the mom who's more dogmatic--but what makes Javed's difficult relationship with his dad work is knowing how it parallels that which Bruce seemingly had with his father, Douglas Springsteen. (See Springsteen on Broadway on Neflix if you haven't yet.)

So, abetted by a certain degree of self-identification, Blinded by the Light is a film almost any diehard Springsteen fan should at least like, and probably love.

Its merits go well-beyond worship of the Boss, and I have to imagine the distribution plan for New Line/Warner Bros.--which paid nearly $15 million for the rights despite a lack of known stars save for Hayley Atwell of Agent Carter/Marvel MCU fame--goes far beyond the Jersey Shore.

But if you loathe Bruce Springsteen--and that would be a shame--Blinded by the Light likely isn't apt to help you see the beauty in "wanting things that can only be found, in the Darkness on the Edge of Town."

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