The idea of an Asian teenager in the Eighties taking inspiration from Bruce Springsteen sounds unlikely at first but not only is this film inspired by a true story but if you look at the Boss’s lyrics they have a universal appeal. Based on Sarfraz Manzoor’s book `Greetings from Bury Park`,it tells the story of a British teenager of Pakistani descent whose outlook is transformed when he hears Springsteen’s music and lyrics for the first time. Conveyed via a striking sequence in the film it is the words in particular that galvanise Javed into rebelling against his strict family to become his own person whoever that may be. If this sounds like a standard rites of passage movie the result is much more than that. Gurinder Chadha’s film niftily staples Javed’s awakening to the political times in which he lives. It’s as feelgood a movie as the posters suggests though in a down to earth manner where Javed’s aspirations start and end with getting out of Luton, getting a girl and making some money. These may seem limited ambitions but in a family hamstrung both by tradition and the economic state of the country plus a swathe of racism swirling around not as easy as it might sound.
It is set in 1987 which is interesting because at this point Bruce Springsteen was bigger than ever thanks to the `Born in the USA` album but it’s title song had been misinterpreted by many as a simple celebration of American life. However the lyrics speak of hard times and struggle making it ironic that right wing American politicians of the day would often use it as an anthem. By this time Springsteen was hardly the sort of rock star to appeal to English teenagers of any background; he was more “like the music your Dad listens to” as one character puts it. Yet Bruce’s lyrics spoke to the outsider in society and in the mid 80s you couldn’t get much more `outside` than being part of an immigrant family in recession hit UK. The film is doused in incidents of casual racism that were par for the course back then and this is allied with headlines and news snippets of factories closing, families on the breadline and so on; exactly the material that inspired Springsteen’s classic songs.
Rather like films about computers, movies about music have certain familiarities but this one neatly skips round most of these. The keynote scene mentioned earlier when Javed first listens to the Boss is one of – if not the- best cinematic interpretation of the effect music can have on a teenager I’ve ever seen. Impressionistic flourishes rely on the locale- shadows and lighting- and it matches the power of the music and lyrics by having the words float on the screen, almost encouraging us all to sing along. This visual trick is used several times later and helps match Springsteen’s visions with 80s Luton in a way you’d never imagine. It’s not a musical though so headphones are handily used to bring the music to us. When there’s a sort of musical number it is natural and quite amusing while the trio of kids running through the streets to `Born to Run` is wonderfully simple yet powerful (and took three weeks to shoot!)
The film contains a lot of characters, a lot of happenings but it’s mostly corralled with precision to underscore the important points. This does mean some close editing- early on there are a couple of cuts were you can almost sense the editor’s hand moving things along. One character who suffers from this is Roops who befriends Javed when he goes to sixth form college and is the person who actually introduces him to Springsteen’s music. Yet we find next to nothing out about him; in the end it is Aaron Phagura’s performance that keeps him in the picture but the character is thinly sketched. Also, Javed’s hitherto best mate Matt (a lively, funny Dean Charles Chapman) is ushered to the sidelines in the final run in after an excellent scene in which he responds in a suprising way against Javed’s new found freedom of expression. And there’s Hayley Attwell’s inquisitive, caring teacher Ms Clay who makes bold gestures on Javed's behalf but whose part dwindles later. It would be nice to maybe see some edited material when this gets released to buy or stream but in the meantime you can see why the choices were made.
Also it allows the important father / son relationship to flourish in some very well written and played scenes between them. Though circumstances were changed from what actually happened, you can sense a real authenticity in their relationship which neither falls too far into strict Dad/ rebellious kid territory (Javed’s `rebellion` is too polite for that) nor uses religion as a catch-all excuse either way. In these kind of dramas not enough attention is always paid to the adults who can come across as caricatures but here they are allowed a voice and a view that is as valid as the kids’ ones. We’re never encouraged to take sides unless we’re seeing the uglier side of eighties society whether incidents of in your face racism or images of dole queues and riot police
The narrative successfully roots its story firmly in the times without any modern retconning of behaviour. It pulls no punches yet never gets carried way. Its non- judgmental too, nudging the audience forward while enjoying wrong footing the viewer in the best way possible. So Javed’s seemingly conformist straight laced sister turns out to be more free spirited than she seems; there’s a sweet friendship between them that makes a refreshing change. Likewise the film does a good job contrasting Javed’s musical awakening with Matt’s dogged following of the latest trends. A less well composed film might have had Matt become a Bruce fan but he never does probably because his dad really is a Springsteen fan (there’s a fun spin off in my head about Matt and his dad!) Eliza’s socialist principles are never a bone of contention for Javed as they could be; he sits through a dinner with her parents gauche behaviour without saying a word out of place himself. Best of all are Javed’s own parents; here the film largely avoids the `strict Muslim` stereotype so we understand why Javed’s father seems hard on his kids. His own ambitions, often thwarted, echo exactly the sort of working class ethos in Springsteen lyrics inspiring Javed. On a lighter note we’re reminded how strong the tribalism of musical genres.
Not that this is a serious maudlin affair by any means. Matching the rallying cry of Springsteen’s songs the film underscores his central message that you have to try to `run`, to escape and make the best of what’s around. The film never suggests that there are answers to those problems, just ways round them. Like Springsteen, it is down to earth yet that doesn’t stop you dreaming of, striving for better times ahead.
In the lead role Viveik Kalra makes some strong, interesting choices as Javed’s rebellion is never going to burn down buildings but his sense of contained frustration bubbles up as matter progress. He carries the character’s shyness and newly discovered insight equally well. His father is played with conviction by Kulvinder Ghir who makes us respect him even when he is clearly wrong. There’s a strong role too for Nell Williams as Javed’s prospective girlfriend Eliza while Nikita Mehta is excellent as Javed’s sister.
It’s a cracking cast all round actually that bring the Eighties to life so vividly that you stop gawking at the huge period haircuts (Rob Brydon as Matt’s father has a corker of a barnet!) and shoulder pads! There’s lovely period detail yet they don’t forget how drab that decade could be. People do seem to dress more extravagantly during harder times and there’s enough hairspray, big jackets and bangles here to perfectly convey the era.
Yes it might have been more radical but it does more than enough to reach a point that when Javed’s father is attacked you will gasp and want to look away. And if there’s anything more joyous than that Born to Run sequence in the cinema this year I’ll be surprised.
I suppose this is a film for optimists who, like Springsteen (and Javed), believe in striving for better times however difficult things are right now. It may not have answers but that’s for politicians and activists; what it does do is entertain and inspire as strongly as anything. I love it!
Here's the trailer....
Though penned by the Boss, `Blinded by the Light` came to wider attention as a hit for Manfred Mann’s Earthband in 1976 / 7 when it topped the US charts and made the top 10 in the UK. Mann was a regular coverer of Bruce Springsteen songs and the latter once commented favourably on these outings. Manfred’s version includes a snipper of `Chopsticks` in the middle!
Yet what the MMEB version did not do was clarify the obscure lyrics especially the second line of the chorus which appears to say something like “revved up like a douche and a runner in the night”. Turns out the word is deuce as in the two seater car. Springsteen’s original says “cut loose like a deuce” which scans better.
The lyrics conjure up a roster of bizarre characters such as “madman drummers”, “go-kart Mozart” and “some silicon sisters”. What is all means is another matter’; theories have suggested it could be about drug running but in fact it appears it is about Bruce’s childhood and adolescence- a jumble of mixed up memories he lyricised courtesy of a rhyming dictionary. So it is an appropriate title then for a movie about adolescence then!