Cinema Dispatch: Blinded by the Light

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Blinded by the Light and all the images you see in this review are owned by Warner Bros. Pictures

Directed by Gurinder Chadha

See, I was confused about this movie when I first heard about it because of the title.  Blinded by the Light is a Manfred Mann song, right?  I’m not the only one who thought this?  Well apparently it WAS a Springsteen song first which either goes to show my utter lack of musical knowledge or just how much THE BETTER VERSION has overshadowed the original.  Seriously, they play the Springsteen version at one point, and I was pretty much meh on it.  The song NEEDS those chopsticks!  ANYWAY!  Since Boomer Music is all the rage these days we were surely going to get the Springsteen movie at some point, and for someone like me who barely knows anything about the guy (Baby We Were Born to Run, Born in the USA, and… well that’s about it), this might be the perfect way to educate me about his place is musical history while also telling a compelling narrative about an immigrant family in Thatcher’s Britain since this is apparently based on a true story about a guy I’ve never heard of.  A movie about a musician I know nothing about told through the life story of a person I know nothing about.  Probably should have done some homework ahead of time, but regardless of all that; is this a good movie about the music that inspired a man to live out his dreams?  Let’s find out!

Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra) is your typical Pakistani teenager living in Britain in the late 1980s; facing discrimination from skinheads in the neighborhood and barely getting along with his family at home.  His father expects him to get a high paying (and very boring) job once he graduates from college and until then he studies, he works lousy jobs, and he stays away from all the white kids having parties and premarital sex; the only solace from the drudgery being the poems and essays he writes every day.  Not for mass consumption of course since his father would never approve, but it’s at least SOMETHING that makes him a little bit happier.  If only there was someone out there who can open his eyes to the world he’s missing out on!  If only there was a… musical artist let’s say, who understands his plight and can reach him on an emotional level that nothing else has before!  Well luckily for Javed, he meets someone at school named Roops (Aaron Phagura) who tells him about… The Boss.  Have you heard the good word about The Boss?  Well in case you hadn’t heard, The Boss is Bruce Springsteen and he writes music that transcends generation, nationality, and race; so much so that this sad Pakistani teenager gets a new lease on life after two cassettes worth of rock and roll goodness!  Can Javed turn his life around and start to follow his dreams instead of living up to the expectations of his father?  How will his family react to his new taste in music and the rebellious attitude that comes along with it?  Can he REALLY pull off the sleeveless flannel look?  Then again, can any of us?

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“Look at my hair, and know that I am judging you.”     “Whatevs.  I look GOOD!”

So far this year we’ve had Rocketman and Yesterday as far as Boomer Music Movies, and we’ve even had the recent The Farewell as a movie about the clashing of eastern and western culture.  This movie isn’t all that BAD, but it is below all of them; even Yesterday which had its issues but at least had an interesting premise and a compelling narrative that complemented its musical choices.  I feel like this is, at best, a TV movie with a pretty sizable music budget because it feels so… hollow; feeling less like a movie intended to inspire and excite than one to market and commercialize.  Yesterday and Rocketman may have shamelessly used the soundtrack of its subject matter to sell tickets, but there was a reason for it all beyond its ability to remind people of how great the songs are, and this for the most part feels like it’s lacking that sense of purpose.  It SOMETIMES comes around to something meaningful and Thatcher’s Britain is still something I don’t know much about which made me glad to see such an unflinchingly negative portrayal of her politics and the people who took it to heart, but for the most part it’s just jaunty Springsteen numbers forcefully shoved into the story of a person that no one has finished writing yet.  If I want to see a good biopic, I’ll watch Rocketman.  If I want to see a romantic comedy with elements of magical realism, I’ll at least put Yesterday on the list of candidates.  If I wanted to listen to Bruce Springsteen, I’ll just put on one of his albums instead of watching this movie.  Oh who am I kidding?  I’d be listening to Manfred Mann before I’d get to Springsteen.

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“Wake me up!  Before you Go-Go!!”

First and foremost, we need to talk about the music.  I’m not saying Springsteen is bad or anything, but the implementation in this movie comes off as utterly shallow.  Look, I get discovering a band and falling in love with it immediately (Oingo Boingo, Reel Big Fish, Mouse Rat BEFORE they sold out), but I’m gonna be straight with Mr. Khan right now; people who only talk about one band are REALLY annoying.  It’s not like a biopic where the journey of HOW the songs came to be unfolds before us; it’s a dude gushing about this guy endless without any real insight beyond the most basic of interpretations.  We don’t even LEARN anything about the guy that you couldn’t find on the home page of a fan site.  Even Wikipedia would have given us more details than what we learn in here, so as a way of selling us on the guy’s music it ends up doing it in the most shameless and uninteresting way possible.  Yes, the songs are good, and some of the musical numbers where they turn into an actual musical are some of the highlights of the film, but the rest of the time the film barely even knows what it wants to do about the Springsteen worship and it ends up feeling tertiary to the plot when it’s not forcing itself to the forefront.

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When’s their biopic?

But hey!  The music is just ONE aspect of the movie!  Surely the story itself will make up for it, right?  Well… no.  For what is supposed to be based on a true story I ended up learning even less about this guy than about Bruce Springsteen; starting with the bizarre decision to change his name.  The REAL person’s name is Sarfraz Manzoor who also co-wrote the script, and frankly it’s another way this movie just feels like marketing more than anything else.  Seriously, the reason this movie was made has NOTHING to do with who the main character ended up becoming and there’s zero interest in telling that story from anything other than the most bland and inoffensive perspective possible.  To a certain extent I guess Javed is somewhat relatable as being an ANGRY YOUNG MANTM is a phase that most of us go through at one point in our lives, but doesn’t that kind of take something away from his story if it’s basically the same as everyone else’s?  For a good chunk of this movie it just doesn’t feel like a unique story being told about a unique individual, which can work in a FICTIONAL story like this, but with this being BASED ON A TRUE STORY, it can’t really go in the dramatic directions that a story like this (and with music this emotionally driven) needs to go.  Well… sort of, and I guess we might as well get to the OTHER big thing about this movie.

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Andy Ngo was first on the scene to defend this man from Javed’s very threating headphones and mysterious backpack.  Why, there could be MILKSHAKES in there!

Okay, so as much as I’ve been down on this movie, there’s a big elephant in the room that needs to be addressed, and that’s the political and racial elements at play in this story.  Javed Khan being a Pakistani immigrant is important both in the way that the world treats him and how his family treats him as well.   Throw in the fact that he’s growing up in Thatcher’s Britain as well as a few very prescient allusions to modern day figures and movements and you have SOMETHING there.  Is it enough to save the movie?  Unfortunately I’m leaning towards the answer being no for two reasons.  First, the film has a problem with tone.  At times it wants to be a big celebration of Springsteen’s music and being a rebel looking out for your own happiness, and then at other times it’s about hate crimes being inflicted on him, his family, and his community.  At points it seems intentional, especially when a musical number screeches to a halt as they run into something rather disturbing that has happened, but for the most part the end result is rather jarring and this is where Javed being so… carefully portrayed, clashes with what this movie wants to be.  It wants to have its cake and eat it where it’s a firebrand of social consciousness ready to stick it the fascists, but also wants to be safe, lighthearted, and full of good ol’ fashioned American music!  The other issue, and this is where I can’t really speak for anyone but myself, I thought the portrayal of his family felt… off.  I mean maybe I’m COMPLETELY misreading this here, but there seems to be a lot of equivocating crappy parenting with traditional Pakistani culture, and yes there are conservatives in EVERY culture and there are a few scenes of younger Pakistani people embracing their culture in a different way, but… I don’t know, the dad came off as pretty cartoonish to me.  He’s wrong which is the point and I AGREE that he’s wrong, but it felt like he was being FRAMED as representative of true Pakistani culture which Javed is also rebelling against to be more British and to a certain extent Americanized (i.e. the obsession with Springsteen and a rather… suspect speech he gives towards the end about how great America is).  I don’t know, I’m probably going WAY out of my lane here, but I had trouble getting into his struggle to find his own identity within his culture when the answer was to embrace Blue Collar Americana.

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“He grew up to be confident in himself, happy with his life, and can muster a modest amount of charisma.  Where did I go wrong!?”

Ultimately, it’s an uneven mess.  Not the WORST of these Boomer Music Biopics as Bohemian Rhapsody is gonna be a tough one to top, but definitely the worst of them this year.  The few bright spots of this movie clash with everything else and I just couldn’t escape the feeling that this was a marketing exercise with how little insight it ultimately provided and how much the Springsteen portions of this movie clashed with whatever social message it was trying to make.  A story about the real Sarfraz Manzoor might have been interesting if they REALLY wanted to tell it, but the only reason this got made is to ride a trend and the whole production suffers for it.  I’d say skip it and watch Rocketman instead.  It should have had its home release by now and you’ll certainly have a better time watching that at home than this in a theater; especially since with the former you can dance along with it without getting funny looks.  Well the cat might start judging you, but when are they NOT judging you?

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