Blinding light on the migrant experience

This autobiography has jokes about the immigrant experience so accurate and painfully poignant they will make you cringe. Too bad it misses the mark about other matters.

Such as how, when making a movie about oneself as a teenager, the biggest laughs should be reserved for one's younger self. Especially if, as a teenager, the author considers himself a rebel, maverick or intellectual. In other words, insufferable.

There is nothing quite so worthy of mockery as a smug kid, and the ability to take jabs at her younger self injects honesty into Sandi Tan's autobiographical documentary Shirkers (2018). That self-flagellation is what makes Irish musical coming-of-age story Sing Street (2016) so funny and magical.

There are some laughs to be had at Javed's transformation from browbeaten boy to Springsteen super fan, but that is overwhelmed by the reverence for the man and his lyrics. Many people have teenage intellectual crushes - on Bob Dylan, Ayn Rand, Albert Camus, Henry David Thoreau or some other person whose words hit deep - but they look back and feel embarrassed at their obsessive nerdiness.

The makers of this film want it to be an unabashed love letter to Springsteen. Some of the persuasion comes through with graphics: The songwriter's words about the agony of boredom and the beauty of escape are overlaid on live action or through semi-realistic dance numbers featuring non-dancers running through the streets.

These sequences, featuring the hits (Dancing In The Dark, Cover Me, Hungry Heart and, of course, Born To Run) as well as lesser-known but revered tunes (Badlands and The River) convey Javed's fierce love of the songs, but their heavy-handedness does little to sell the rocker's lyrical prowess to those who do not already believe it to be true.

The story shines when it makes observations about the generational gap between immigrant parents and their children.



    118 minutes/Opens today/3.5 stars

    The story: As if growing up in the dull industrial town of Luton, England, in the late 1980s was not bad enough, Javed (Viveik Kalra) has to put up with a well-meaning but overbearing immigrant father (Kulvinder Ghir), being uncool at school and dealing with the far-right skinheads who mean to do Pakistani-British people like him harm. A friend, Roops (Aaron Phagura), slips him a Bruce Springsteen cassette, a loan that will change his life. Based on journalist Sarfraz Manzoor's 2007 memoir, Greetings From Bury Park: Race, Religion And Rock 'N' Roll.

The parents see themselves as outsiders, undeserving of rights when attacked by xenophobes and racists. Their children have other ideas. The older set want their children to fulfil parental dreams; the children have their own.

Here, the father-son clashes exist not for drama or political comment and they feel laceratingly real and personal.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 15, 2019, with the headline 'Blinding light on the migrant experience'. Print Edition | Subscribe