Once upon a time two men sat in a New York bar lamenting the state of Broadway. So they decided to play Fantasy Musical. Several beers down they came up with a weird hybrid: a jukebox musical that injected the songs of Blondie into the plot of Desperately Seeking Susan. Somehow this botched centaur stumbled all the way to the West End, where it joined that throng of musicals that should have stayed on the drawing board.
Blinded by the Light is a Bollywood-style musical comedy set in the Pakistani community of Luton that takes as its soundtrack the oeuvre of Bruce Springsteen. No drunk blokes in a bar could ever have conjured up such an implausibility. And yet it is a trueish story, inspired by the memoir of Sarfraz Manzoor. Greetings from Bury Park (2007) told of a Muslim teenager growing up in Luton in the late 1980s. His life is hemmed in on one side by a despotic father and on the other by the National Front, while the M1 roars by. ‘Luton is a four-letter word,’ he scowls in a poem. His horizons expand at sixth-form college when a Sikh classmate introduces him to Born in the USA. Here Manzoor’s name has been changed to Javed Khan, and he’s played with charm and enthusiasm by Viveik Kalra.
There’s no doubting the sincerity of Manzoor’s discipleship. In Springsteen’s songs — about making the best of the cards you’ve been dealt in whatever shit town you happen to live — he finds a comforting gospel. ‘It’s like Bruce knows everything I’ve ever felt,’ Javed says ecstatically. It’s a harder task to prod and poke them into the mould of a feelgood coming-of-age film. As they swarm inside Javed’s head, the lyrics of ‘Dancing in the Dark’ and ‘The River’ jostle helpfully on to the screen. Sometimes he is moved to quote songs, as if taking dictation from a life coach. Before you know it ‘Thunder Road’ has prompted a mass dance-a-thon, or Javed and his mates skip and chase around Luton to the howling strains of ‘Born to Run’ (in which Manzoor gets a tiny cameo).
The director Gurinder Chadha and her regular co-writer Paul Mayeda Berges have been this way before. Bride and Prejudice was stuffed with song and dance, and Bend It Like Beckham became an excellent West End musical. Blinded by the Light sploshes a fresh coat of paint on an archetypal narrative that has been told and retold since My Beautiful Laundrette: the British-Asian kid who yearns to integrate, the immigrant patriarch (Kulvinder Ghir) who says ‘you will never be British’, the racist agitators in the wings. However familiar they may be, it’s in these clashes, when everyone stops fixating on Springsteen, that the film feels most visceral and authentic.
The problem with adapting memoirs is that it’s never simple joining the random dots of a life to fashion a plotline. The sweet but formulaic script wheels half-drawn characters on and off according to the needs of Javed’s story: the cartoonish white mate over the road, the left-wing girlfriend, the chirpy turbanned sidekick, the dour but kindly neighbour who fought Hitler, the inspirational schoolmarm (Hayley Atwell), the market trader with 1970s hair (Rob Brydon in a disaster wig). The heftiest use of the crowbar is accompanied by ‘Jungleland’: Javed misses the moment his sister’s wedding runs into an NF march because he absolutely must dash off to buy tickets to Springsteen.
His dad tears them up, but no matter: Manzoor, we learn in the credits, has seen Springsteen live 150 times. It may be optimistic to count on finding an audience that will match his fervour in this arranged marriage between Bollywood and the Boss.