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Blinded by the Light

**

by Matt Anderson

published July 13, 2019

Some personal stories are more lyrical in the mind than on the screen.

Greetings from Bury Park, Luton

The hands clacking away at the keyboard writing this review have high-fived Bruce Springsteen. (Electricity!) They shook hands with Bono. (Soul!) They received a guitar pick from the Thin White Duke (David Bowie) and from Duke Erikson (Garbage). (Whooa!) They caught a drum stick from the Fray's Ben Wysocki. (Righteous!)

The feet? They've followed U2 around the planet, travelling through 33 cities in 15 countries on three continents to see the band perform 56 concerts and make three special appearances. (So far.)

This writer knows all about the power of music and the magic behind living a life driven by inspirational lyrics and a resonant sound, an energetic beat. It's a positive lifestyle yielding an optimistic outlook. Rock 'n' roll can indeed change a person's world.

For journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, his own true-life story as a Pakistani Muslim growing up in Luton, England, during the 1980s serves as the inspiration behind Blinded by the Light. Manzoor, you see, is a huge Bruce Springsteen fan. He's seen him perform more than 150 times. This movie is the origin story of his own personal musical journey.

It's a nice story. But, as told here, it's off key.

Born to Write

As the movie opens, the first song heard is It's a Sin, by the Pet Shop Boys. That's fitting. With lyrics "Everything I've ever done, everything I ever do… It's a sin," thematically the song ties in with the strict upbringing of Manzoor's onscreen alias, Javed (Viveik Kalra in his feature debut). And it's also not a Bruce Springsteen song. In the beginning, Javed is living in the dark world that afflicts too many people; it's that world we could refer to as B.S. (Before Springsteen).

As it happens, Javed's life is suffering on a number of fronts. His neighborhood is increasingly overrun by white supremacists who spray paint vile messages on Pakistani homes. Even young children take to peeing through their mail slots. Javed's never kissed a girl. His dad is an all-business traditionalist (and slightly racist himself). Javed gets bullied on the regular. In short, Javed's life sucks.

But he likes to write. And in a new writing teacher, Ms. Clay (Hayley Atwell, Captain America: The First Avenger), he's found his first fan.

So, really, Javed's story is two-fold. There's his introduction to Springsteen by way of a fellow Pakistani student. And — equally important — there's his introduction to Ms. Clay. Arguably, Manzoor would not be living the life he is today without Ms. Clay's influence and proactive movements to put his writing in front of the right eyeballs.

The Boss? Yeah. He's the spark. After all, you can't start a fire without a spark. (That's from Dancing in the Dark, baby!) But Ms. Clay brought the gasoline.

What's missing here is a real appreciation for where all of this has taken Manzoor. Sure, he's seen the Boss more than 150 times (a revelation made as a cute coda at the movie's end), but he's also become a very successful journalist who has interviewed many big names in the music biz, including Charlie Watts, Peter Gabriel, Sinead O'Connor and Brian Wilson. Certainly, that professional success has fueled his ability to attend all those shows.

City of Ruins

Here's the challenge: In reality, the world is full of stories like this, but the vast majority simply don't make it to the big screen or any other mainstream media. There are plenty of fans hawking books of their travels following various bands, writing about how so-and-so influenced them. Um. The pages of the mighty, mighty Mattopia Times are loaded with such content by this writer.

The redemptive, rejuvenating power of music is front and center in movies like Once, The Commitments, Moulin Rouge! and countless others. But in trying to tell a very personal true story about how one specific artist created an internal tidal wave requires a certain panache to make the desired impact. Inspiration for one should cascade as inspiration for others. The floodgates should open.

Co-writer/director Gurinder Chadha (Bend it Like Beckham) fails to create the right vibe. Yes, after slowly moving the players into place for Javed to finally be introduced to the Boss (of us all) via Born in the USA and Darkness on the Edge of Town, the volume goes up. The visual playfulness begins, with lyrics floating across the screen.

But the story is overloaded with clichés and — after the true-life inspiration from Manzoor has been further massaged by two additional writers (Chadha and her frequent collaborator Paul Mayeda Berges) — the uplifting aspects get weighed down by too much drama that should be relegated to the background. There are the racists, there's the economic crisis of the Thatcher era, there's the lovesickness, there's the father.

Oh. The father, Malik (Kulvinder Gher, a Beckham alum). Oy vey. His shtick about telling his son to watch what the Jews do (because they're successful) and frequently calling Springsteen a Jew gets old fast. He's strict. Got it. He's traditional. Got it. He's in the Footloose vein of music is an evil waste of time. Fine. He loses his job at the GM plant and demonstrates more interest in face-saving in the community than rolling up his sleeves. He's tiresome in ways that impede the movie's emotive power instead of spurring it on.

So, in that sense, too much of the literal is brought to the screen when what is needed is more of the fanciful, the lyrical pizzazz that Manzoor felt in his heart. It would take a Baz Luhrmann or similar talent with a finger on the pulse of these sorts of things to put imagination into the presentation and really make this story sing.

Worlds Apart

Ultimately, that inability to cut loose and transcend reality for something more is what keeps Blinded by the Light in the dark. There are a couple musical scenes that feel forced, as if pulled from some other musical, lacking in joie de vivre

At one point, Javed's sister Shazia (Nikita Mehta in a promising feature debut) brings him to a daytime dance party. During that brief time in which she's able to let her hair down, she confides to her brother that when she's out dancing, it's the only time when she can forget about life. That's a big point that ultimately gets lost in the movie repeatedly falling back on the "life" story as the driver instead of the music.

All of those dramatic plot points are valid in and of themselves, but it's the degree to which they are portrayed which makes or breaks this material. In the end, Blinded by the Light is exactly what it shouldn't be: It's too self-absorbed and lacking in energy. The contrivances blare out over the music as Javed's parents are conveniently brought to an award ceremony in which Javed gives a misty-eyed speech. That falls on the heels of Javed winning a trip to Monmouth College, right smack in the backyard of so many Springsteen haunts. Again, the joyous serendipity of life is lost in the muddled drama of family dynamics.

Monmouth? The Boss? Turn 'em up to 11. The family? The politics? They need to go down to 3 or 4 in order for this to work as a movie.

Earlier this summer, these hands clacking away at the keyboard tapped a steady beat on the steering wheel while driving home, listening to Elton John's vast catalog of gems after seeing Rocketman. Similarly, the steering wheel become a percussive instrument to the Beatles after seeing Yesterday. But these hands were content to hold steady and tune into sports talk after Blinded by the Light. That is, perhaps, the single biggest indicator of this movie's limited impact.