Gurinder Chadha heads back to the Bend it Like Beckham template for a contrived and unconvincing coming of age tale
In Gurinder Chadha’s 2002 hit Bend it Like Beckham, there was palpable magic kicked from the screen into the audience, a vibrant, warm surprise that, at the time, broke box office records in the UK. Her output since has been less magnetic, from Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging to It’s A Wonderful Afterlife, but in an attempt to recall prior glory, she’s taken the Beckham formula and replaced football with music in Blinded by the Light, a shameless crowd-pleaser that contorts the music of Bruce Springsteen into a coming-of-age narrative.
Inspired by the life of the Guardian journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, who also co-wrote the script, the film takes place in Luton in 1987 and focuses on Javed (Viveik Kalra), a teenager who struggles to find a balance between his life in and outside of the home. Expectations from his Pakistani father conflict with how he sees his own life and future while the lingering threat of an arranged marriage clashes with his desire to find a girlfriend. As he starts his first year of the local sixth form college, Javed’s world is opened up when a new friend introduces him to the music of Bruce Springsteen, who might no longer be seen as cool by his peers but whose lyrics inspire him to take control of his destiny.
There’s something undeniably seductive about the familiarity of the set-up, the feelgood British comedy with emotional beats signposted a mile away, a comfort food feast from a director who gave us one of the last decade’s most memorable examples. The backdrop also allows for some powerful commentary, a time of great division and hardship in a town that wasn’t entirely welcoming to a Pakistani British family. For the first 20 minutes or so, there are broad pleasures to be had with Kaira as a charming protagonist as well as some stinging examples of vile racism. It seems as if the wheels are in motion for an audience-friendly smash that also has something serious on its mind. But then The Boss arrives …
Javed’s immersion in the music of Springsteen takes place during the great storm of 1987 and in a silly, messily handled sequence, he’s inspired to frolic in the wind as lyrics appear on the screen and video footage plays on a wall. It’s one of many awkward attempts to truly embed Springsteen’s music in the film, rather than just having it play as a soundtrack and while ambitious, Chadha can’t seem to make them work. Semi-musical sequences involving Javed singing and dancing along at school or in the town of Luton should be rousing but