Blinded by the Light, 2019.
Directed by Gurinder Chadha.
Starring Viveik Kalra, Kulvinder Ghir, Nell Williams, Aaron Phagura, Meera Ganatra, Hayley Atwell, Rob Brydon, Dean-Charles Chapman, Frankie Fox, 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.
Confession time. I had never listened to a Bruce Springsteen song until I saw Blinded by the Light at the Sundance Film Festival. Sure, I knew about him and knew the titles to some of his most famous songs – but I hadn’t listened to a song in full and had therefore absolutely no emotional connection to his music. This is to say, I was converted into a full-on fan of “The Boss” after I had the time of my life watching Gurinder Chadha’s (Bend it Like Beckham) newest film, Blinded by the Light.
Like me, Javed (breakout performer Viveik Kalra) had never heard of Springsteen growing up in Thatcher’s England during the 80s. Javed is a teenager living in Luton, a place where nothing happens, and he only dreams of being one of the hundreds of people he sees driving on the freeway on their way to London. At a time when neo-nazis where marching in the street, Javed struggles with his father’s expectation of what a good Pakistani boy should do, and his own aspirations as a young British man. His father is a proud and traditional man who doesn’t want his son to be another taxi driver, but when it comes to letting his son become a writer, he replies: “You can choose to be a doctor or a lawyer, so don’t say I don’t give you any freedom”.
Blinded by the Light is inspired by the life of The Guardian journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, and from the moment we meet Javed, there’s no doubt he’s meant to be a writer. He spends every moment of his day writing poems that he keeps hidden in his desk, and song lyrics for his best friend, Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman) who is sure synth is the future of music.
Of course, everything changes when the new school year starts and Javed meets fellow Pakistani classmate Roops (Aaron Phagura) loans him a couple Bruce Springsteen cassettes. Suddenly “Dancing in the Dark” starts coming to life, with the lyrics from the song literally floating in the air around Javed like The Boss talking directly to him. The music from this working man from New Jersey is enough to make Javed obsessed with the singer’s lyrics about the harshness of the world and his optimism, as well as quoting Springsteen’s lyrics every waking moment.
One of the running meta themes of Blinded by the Light is how Bruce Springsteen was considered old and irrelevant by teens in 1987 England, with Javed’s friends commenting on how that’s music their parents listened to, and how the New Jersey singer would not be around for long (ha!). Javed instead tries to convince everyone around him that The Boss’ lyrics are as relevant for them as it was for Americans a decade earlier.
The other theme is that on the harsh prejudice that Pakistanis faced in the UK during the 80s, and just how little the world has changed since them. Where Sundance’s previous music sensation Sing Street touched on Ireland’s economic recession in the 80s without going in depth, Blinded by the Light doesn’t shy away from getting down and dirty with explicit examples of oppression and racism, and it calls out Thatcher by name several times, specially when Javed’s teacher Ms Clay (Hayley Atwell) shows up. The rise of the National Front can be seen and felt throughout the film, with skinheads constantly following and throwing slurs at Javed, and even a couple of kids under 10-years-old peeing through the mail slot at the house of one of Javed’s father’s friends. It’s a harsh reminder of what happened in England at the time, and how similar it feels to present-day US, yet director Gurinder Chadha never makes this a distraction and manages to integrate it to the plot and Javed’s character arc.
The casting is spot on, with Viveik Kalra giving a breakout performance. Kalra perfectly captures Javed’s journey as he starts gaining optimism and confidence as he listers to Springsteen. He wears swagger as well as he does sleeveless flannels and jean jackets. Kalra manages to be both charming enough that you don’t find it weird when he starts singing “Thunder Road” in the middle of a market, yet shy enough to convince as the quiet outsider. Veteran actor Kulvinder Ghir is both heartfelt and hilarious as Javed’s father, a proud man who just lost his job of 16 years, and who keeps calling Springsteen “that Jewish singer”.
There are no choreographed musical numbers like Sing Street, but that’s part of the film’s charm. Instead of a magical realism number with background dancers, we simply see Javed, headphones on, start singing Springsteen’s songs out loud and in public. He doesn’t care that he’s the only one listening to the actual music, he just wants to spread The Boss’ word. Even if you (like me) are not a fan of Bruce Springsteen, you’ll find it impossible not to tap your shoes to the tunes of “The Promised Land”, “Born to Run”, or one of the 17 Springsteen songs featured in the film. The actual musical numbers are as grounded as the lyrics in the songs, yet you still feel the rapturous joy Javed feels as he bursts into song, at one point with the help of several bystanders.
Blinded by the Light is corny, silly and as predictable as they come, but its charm is as irresistible as Bruce Springsteen’s music. The father-son relationship at the centre of the film rings true and sincere, and the performances make even the story of a guy so obsessed with Springsteen that he goes to 150 of his concerts completely relatable.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★