Monday 5 August 2019

The Boss of it all: "Blinded by the Light"

After the ambitious counterhistories of Viceroy's House and its recent TV pendant Beecham House, Blinded by the Light marks a return to familiar thematic territory for the British-Asian writer-director Gurinder Chadha. As with Chadha's enduring Noughties crowdpleasers Bend It Like Beckham and Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging, this freehand adaptation of Sarfraz Manzoor's 2007 memoir Greetings from Bury Park centres on an unconventional young mind escaping social and parental pressures to find their true place in the world. Those earlier films played out in inner-city London (Southall) and by the sea (Eastbourne). Here, the setting is none more suburban: late 1980s Luton, which - with all due respect to Nick Owen and Mick Harford - is hardly the most promising of locations, doubly so when you're a shy, self-conscious Asian lad (Viveik Kalra, as Mazoor's surrogate Javed) faced with Maggie's jobless state and National Front yahoos roaming the streets. One route out for this aspirant scribe is opened up by the none more white, none more American Bruce Springsteen, whose music Javed first encounters on less than glamorous cassette, handed over in the sixth-form refectory like the keys to a Cadillac, or to the world entire. "We were born in the wrong town, at the wrong time, to the wrong families," our boy is informed by the local head of the Boss fan club, a sentiment that could have driven any number of Springsteen songs from the Seventies and Eighties.

The sociology doesn't cut that deep. Even as someone with a marked weakness for I Heart the 80s nostalgia, I felt Chadha laying on the Cutting Crew calendars and Top Deck cider on a little thick; the 1987 setting means we once again have to sit through weather forecaster Michael Fish reassuring his viewers they have absolutely nothing to worry about in the way of hurricanes. Yet Blinded by the Light just about works as a love letter to all things Bruce, composed with Chadha's usual affection and enthusiasm. What the film gets, by a combination of design and happy accident, is how in that post-Live Aid moment, with the pop charts filling up with soap stars and sap, Springsteen presented as most British youngsters' first real opportunity to hear a grown man singing about the world that lay ahead of us. We may have forgotten just how youthful he was in 1987 - a clip of an Old Grey Whistle Test interview provides a piquant reminder - but if he was young enough to seem like one of us, he also sounded old enough for us to look to him for life advice and general wisdom. (Which, much as I like "I've Been in Love Before", no-one was getting from Cutting Crew.) It's funny that the Great Storm in Chadha's film coincides with the first time Javed pushes play on his Walkman: things are about to be stirred up. (In a recent onstage interview, Chadha spoke of the impact The Wizard of Oz had on her younger self: perhaps she was thinking of the hurricane that carried Dorothy to Oz, and reordered her everyday life.)

Visually, the film is a touch cramped, though this may be deliberate. No British director has been more attentive to the front rooms and bedrooms of Britain as it was in the late 20th/early 21st century - one Proustian touch in Javed's room: dabs of Blu-Tack left behind by posters - yet much of Blinded is stuck on sitcommy sets that, for all their attentive dressing, still look rather too much like sets. There's a certain verve in restaging "Born to Run" as a Bollywood number on the M1 flyover, but generally the film seems hesitant to launch into a full-blown musical. What saves it is Chadha's way with people: she's emerged as British cinema's foremost matchmaker, forever pairing an audience with broadly good company. Here, she surrounds her engaging young leads with more seasoned talent: David Hayman as an ex-Army neighbour, Hayley Atwell as the teacher nudging Javed along, Rob Brydon as a market trader with a thoroughly lamentable hairpiece. Best of all: Kulvinder Ghir, landing his most substantial screen role yet as the blustering, overbearing dad through whom Chadha can address a conflict between first-wave migrants, determining to keep their heads down and fit in, and their second-generation offspring, keener to make a name for themselves. (The most piercing line goes to that conflict: "I don't want to be your son; I want to be more than that.") Sundance audiences, doubtless swayed by the tribute this plucky little Britpic pays to America the Beautiful in its final act, went wild for it. You and I might question how convincing the darkness is on the edge of this town - Chadha's NF are rent-a-goons, rarely more threatening than plot devices tend to be - yet there's probably enough to set the Saturday night crowd to dancing in the dark.

Blinded by the Light previews in Showcase cinemas tonight, before opening nationwide on Friday.

No comments:

Post a Comment