Blinded By The Light: a coming-of-age film propped up by Springsteen's Greatest Hits
Blinded By The Light, is the latest film from Gurinder Chadha who brought us 2002’s Bend it Like Beckham. Written by Sarfraz Manzoor, Chadha, and Paul Mayeda Berges, it’s set in 1987, during the austere days of Thatcher’s Britain. Chadha hs made a name for herself with coming-of-age stories and this is no different. Blinded By The Light is about a teenager who learns to live life, understand his family and find his own voice through the words and music of Bruce Springsteen. The film is inspired by British journalist Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir “Greetings From Bury Park” so there is a lot to pack into its 118 minutes - more on that later.
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, 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). 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.
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 segments involving thunderstorms and windy weather (including Michael Fish’s infamous TV weather forecast) pushing Javed back as relevant video footage plays on the walls of towering buildings.
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, 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, and his other friends are certainly eclectic but don’t necessarily leave any real impact. One of them is a young British lad, played by Dean Charles-Chapman who is fixated on vastly different 80s music at the expense of a few jokes, but it does make for a winning theme 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. Likewise we get a glimpse of Javed’s sister who brings him along to a daytime event so she can be a “Pakistani Madonna”. I wanted more of this storyline. Perhaps there is more in the book.
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 is dying her husband’s hair, 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.
Other themes or backgrounds, such as the National Front issues are never satisfactorily addressed or resolved. I wanted more of this but perhaps that’s a different film.
The staging of the musical numbers was a little troublesome. It was not quite the fantasy staging of Rocket Man nor was it the simplistic beauty of Sunshine on Leith. It lay somewhere in between. A minor quibble.
The direction runs with the Bruce Springsteen music so hard and frequently, bombarding audiences with song after song, the musical numbers, the charming scenarios, and makes Javed so damn easy to like (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 (see what I did there?) of cheery excitement.
Go see this and have your cockles warmed.