This started so well! A Pet Shop Boys song, an A-ha song, and a shot of someone reading Smash Hits. It doesn’t get much more promising than that! Unfortunately, it wasn’t actually very good: it wasn’t a bad idea, but it was too full of tropes, stereotypes and negativity. However, it was still worth seeing, for the glorious music – I thought it was all going to be Bruce Springsteen music, but, even better, it was like Greatest Hits of 1987 – and the ’80s nostalgia. Pound notes, Walkmans, those traffic light thingies you hung from car mirrors, wearing too much eyeshadow … ! It wasn’t a great film, but it did get a lot of aspects of the ’80s across pretty accurately, and also highlighted the fundamental importance of music, especially during your so-called formative years. Did anyone’s school actually have a radio station in the 1980s, though? Mine certainly didn’t!
It was supposed to be a feelgood film. I suppose it was, in some ways. Plenty of music and dancing, and a happy ending. British-Pakistani teenage boy growing up in Luton in the 1980s, and not feeling very happy about anything. His dad had been made redundant, his mum was having to work all hours to pay the bills, he felt like a misfit at school, he couldn’t get a girlfriend, his parents had expectations of him that weren’t what he wanted, there were issues with racism in the area … and then a friend introduced him to Bruce Springsteen’s music, and the lyrics inspired him, and everything came right for him in the end. It sounded great, but it just didn’t quite hit the right spots.
Too many tropes? Most of them were tropes that could have been done so well, though. Loving but overly controlling British-Pakistani father, teenage kids who want to assimilate into British society but also stay close to their families – done brilliantly in East is East. Geeky teenage boy who’s into politics, writes poems and somehow manages to get together with the cool girl – done brilliantly in the Adrian Mole books. Supportive, inspirational teacher – done brilliantly in numerous films. Teenager who wants to become a writer (/artist/singer/dancer/whatever), rather than get what his parents consider a “proper” job – again, done brilliantly in numerous films, and books. There was nothing wrong with the tropes as such: the film just wasn’t all that convincing. Maybe the characters didn’t work. Everyone was so stereotypical. And they were all, apart from the dad who was a bit of both, either goodies or baddies: there were no nuances at all.
It wasn’t exactly very realistic, either. OK, fiction would be pretty boring if it was entirely realistic, but there are limits – at least make it believable! The aforementioned supportive teacher entered one of our hero’s essays in a competition, and, whaddaya know, it won, and the prize was a trip to a writers’ conference in New Jersey, just near Bruce Springsteen’s home town. Right, because stuff like that happens all the time. He’d probably have got a £10 book token. Also, no-one in Britain in the ’80s said “You did good” or referred to their homework as an “assignment”.
Then there was all this American Dream stuff. In America, anyone can achieve anything! No-one cares where you come from. No-one feels negatively about anyone else. Er, what?? Don’t get me wrong, I love America, but was that idea not all rather more 1890s than 1980s? And it kept slagging off Luton. What’s poor Luton ever done to anyone? Maybe it was meant to be taken humorously, but I don’t like films or songs or books that sneer at places like that. Why does Gurinder Chadha have to be so negative – not just about Luton, but about Britain in general? See also Beecham House and Viceroy’s House ! I thought she overdid the controlling dad bit, as well. But then Bend It Like Beckham was so good – that was everything this could have been and wasn’t, a really lovely feelgood film about a British-Asian teenager. Please, dear, get back to doing what you did so well in 2002!
Our hero did not, incidentally, end up in America. He went to university in Manchester. Nothing negative was said about Manchester, at least – that really would have been the final straw! That was if they ever actually got to Manchester, given that they were rather worryingly following a signpost for “M1 London”. And he suddenly realised that his dad was actually a really great guy who’d always done his best for his family, and his dad realised that he was really wonderful as well – yeah, yeah, yeah! Subtle as a sledgehammer.
At one point, our hero and his mate took over the school radio station, blasted out Bruce Springsteen music, and damaged the DJ’s Tiffany record. There are some Tiffany lyrics which sum this film up pretty well. “Could’ve been so beautiful, could’ve been so right.” Er, yes, Could’ve been …