Baby, this town rips the bones from your back. It’s a death trap. It’s a suicide rap.
These are among the more famous song lyrics in the modern American canon, but not the sort likely to send you jumping joyously into the air in synchronized leaps with your best friends as you run jauntily through the streets and passersby uniformly applaud your good spirits.
But that’s what happens in Blinded By The Light, a daft and somehow enjoyable musical from Gurinder Chadha (Bend it Like Beckham) that turns the music of Bruce Springsteen into a Mamma Mia-style sing-along.
Part of its appeal lies in the truth and specificity behind the clunky presentation — the story is based on the memoir of U.K. journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, who was a second-generation Pakistani teen in the 1980s when he discovered Bruce Springsteen. Viveik Kalra plays Javed, a young man living an unhappy life in Thatcher-era England, menaced by anti-immigrant skinheads while suffering under the stifling authority of a stern father (Kulvinder Ghir), who works hard to preserve in his children the cultural traditions he brought with him from the home country.
As a consequence, Javed is caught between two worlds, and naturally feels he belongs nowhere. He doesn’t know it yet, but he is indeed born to run, and when he goes to college, he makes a friend (Aaron Phagura) who turns him on to Springsteen. In the Boss, Javed finds music and lyrics that precisely express his longing, his alienation, his burning desire to get out while he’s young.
He also encounters music that expresses much about the complexities of strained father-son relationships, songs that somehow capture the feeling that comes with knowing the blue-collar life your father leads is not the life you want to live.
Javed has designs on life as a writer, and he’s urged on by a sympathetic teacher (Hayley Atwell) and a fellow student and love interest (Nell Williams). When he’s able to get a few articles placed in the local paper, he’s expected to turn the earning over to his father, as per tradition.
This all builds to a predictable breaking point, and there are many moments (setting aside Javed’s touching relationships with his sisters) that feel plotted and predictable. Those that don’t, like Chada’s decision to use word clouds to swirl lyrics around Javed’s music-besotted head, often seem awkward.
It also takes awhile to adjust to Prozac-ed presentation of Springsteen songs, stripped of their melancholy and turned into up-tempo dance numbers, but there is a dramatic logic to this.
Chada isn’t trying to bang you on the nose with a well-known song that complements a scene (à la “I’m Still Standing” in Rocketman). The musical numbers here express something else — the elation you can feel when you hear a song that knows you, rather than a song you know.
For Springsteen fans, vicarious pleasures add to the fun — via confirmation that the music, born in the U.S.A., can travel around the world and back, touching hearts and souls everywhere along the way.
Blinded by the Light. Directed by Gurinda Chadha. With Viveik Kalra, Kulvinder Ghir, Hayley Atwell, Nell Williams, and Aaron Phagura. Distributed by New Line Cinema.
Parents guide: PG-13 (thematic material and language including some ethnic slurs)
Running time: 1 hour, 56 mins.