Blinded by the Light, 2019.
Directed by Gurinder Chadha.
Starring Viveik Kalra, Kulvinder Ghir, Meera Ganatra, Hayley Atwell, Aaron Phagura, Nell Williams, Dean-Charles Chapman, Frankie Fox, Rob Brydon, Nikita Mehta, Tara Divina, and Sally Phillips.
In 1987 during the austere days of Thatcher’s Britain, a teenager learns to live life, understand his family and find his own voice through the music of Bruce Springsteen.
Blinded by the Light is certainly an anomaly; it’s a film about a Pakistani family living in London inspired by the music of legendary American rock star Bruce Springsteen. More specifically, it’s about how the lyrics from a patriotic artist with such hits as ‘Born in the USA’ can speak and make a difference to people from all walks of life. The latest film from celebrated filmmaker Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham) may musically serve as a love letter to The Boss, but that’s also too narrow of a perspective for everything Blinded by the Light stands for; we all have musicians (or going one step further, artists across all mediums) whose work pierces us like a knife to the heart understanding us in ways that seemingly no one else can, subsequently encouraging us to take chances and chase dreams. The movie may blast around 17 Bruce Springsteen songs, but there is a far more universal message here propelling the experience upward into something truly extraordinary and uplifting.
Relative newcomer Viveik Kalra stars as frustrated and angsty teenager Javed, whose friend turns him onto the music of Bruce Springsteen (everything up until 1987 anyway, which is the time period of the movie). His father, a strict no-nonsense man that emphasizes traditional work above all who has also become cynical to the American way following some rather unfortunate events, is struggling to make ends meet and provide for the family. In other words, the last thing he wants is Javed filling his head with ambitious writing ideas (he creates poetry in his spare time and takes an interest in journalism), which comes very easy considering his creative writing teacher played by Hayley Atwell fancies his work and strongly believes Javed has potential to become something more than the traditionalist values instilled upon him by his father. Pakistani writers were certainly uncommon at the time, but Javed still generates support, furthering the American dream aspect of the story.
Javed doesn’t only find solitude and release from the stresses of daily life listening to Bruce Springsteen, but also the confidence to fight for the things he previously didn’t believe were worth fighting for. Gurinder Chadha also has a visually imaginative directorial approach, materializing specific lyrics from songs on the screen that impact Javed in some way. There is also the effort to romanticize the story, complete with ludicrous but winning segments involving thunderstorms and brutally windy weather pushing Javed back as relevant video footage plays on the walls of towering buildings. It’s the kind of stylistic bringing to life of revered music that causes the movie to come across as something more than meaningless praise for one of the greatest singers of all time.
Wisely, Blinded by the Light is also more than just nonstop Bruce tunes and fan service. Javed consistently quotes the hell out of Bruce’s lyrics (a quarter of the script might actually be Bruce lyrics fitted to the ongoings of Javed’s life), but it’s also clear that he is taking his admiration for the material to extreme lengths and losing his own self along the way. He never becomes outright unlikable, but he lets the freedom Bruce speaks of manifest inside his own emotions as a justification to become selfish, inevitably building a thicker barrier between his family and pushing away other important people, like his political activist British girlfriend (Nell Williams).
The only issue with Blinded by the Light (and it’s a small one), is that outside of Javed and his parents, the rest of the supporting cast does not have much to do. There’s a sister getting married which doesn’t amount to much, his girlfriend basically just exists as something to win over and regain once he becomes a dick momentarily, and his other friends are certainly eclectic but don’t necessarily leave any real impact. One of them is a young British lad fixated on vastly different (arguably inferior) 80s music at the expense of a few jokes, but it does make for a winning throughline that goes back to music speaking to everyone in different ways. Everyone has their own thing that temporarily makes the world make sense and feel all right. Still, there’s also point in the movie where I completely forgot the character existed, which shows the story is so laser-focused on Javed and the relationship dynamics with his parents (and obviously Bruce Springsteen) that there is no room for anything else to breathe.
Somehow, Javed’s mother Noor (Meera Ganatra) manages to take limited screen time and deliver an emotionally affecting performance that shows her conflicted thoughts and understanding of both father and son. There’s a scene where she gives her husband a haircut, where the ensuing conversation is painful but beautifully finds optimism within a depressing outlook on life. Likewise, Kulvinder Ghir is successfully able to portray a father that is not a villain, but rather someone with a completely different way of thinking that clashes with his artistic-minded son. Within minutes, you can go from booing him to feeling sympathy; these three are complex characters that overcome basic labels such as good and bad, or obstacles.
The direction runs with the Bruce Springsteen music so hard and frequently, bombarding audiences with song after song, musical numbers, charming scenarios, and makes Javed so damn easy to root for (Viveik Kalra is absolutely tremendous in the role, whether he’s soaking in the music for the first time and perfectly articulating how it’s affecting him, or delivering a teary-eyed speech about the trajectory of his life) that it’s easy to look the other way for the minor faults. Blinded by the Light knows what it does and just coasts along the thunderous road of cheery excitement. Much to my surprise, it’s also based on a true story (the life of Sarfraz Manzoor), and while I’m sure some liberties were taken to morph this oddball American dream into even more of a crowd-pleaser, it transforms all of those tropes into something heartwarming; they become even easier to ignore. Just like Javed experiences Bruce Springsteen for the first time, as does the actor (before filming) Viveik Kalra, this was also pretty much first time I ever really listened to The Boss (a national crime, I know); Blinded by the Light closes the loop by having the same effect on all three of us.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com