Blinded By The Light | Gurinder Chadha | August 14, 2019
Director Gurinder Chadha returns in a big way with Blinded By The Light, her new film about the effect that Bruce Springsteen’s music had on a teenager during a crucial transformative period of his life. The Boss’ music has certainly had this effect on millions of people throughout his decade-spanning career and Chadha’s film is actually based on one of those real fans of Springsteen – journalist, Greetings from Bury Park author, and die-hard Springsteen devotee Sarfraz Manzoor, who co-wrote Blinded By The Light along with Chadha and her longtime writing partner Paul Mayeda Berges.
Standing in for Manzoor is Javed (Viveik Kalra), a British teenager whose Pakistani family is living through the economic troubled and racially tense mid-1980s. All he wants to do is devote time to his passion of writing and eventually escape the town of Luton, where he and his family seem less than welcomed by their neighbors – minus his childhood friend Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Matt’s dad (comedian Rob Brydon) – in addition to breaking free from his father Malik’s (Kulvinder Ghir) dominating traditional views. Times are hard and everyone in the family contributes their wages – even much to Javed’s reluctance – to help pay the amassing family bills.
Javed is going to school, telling his father it’s for a typical “safe” profession, but he’s really studying English and literature, with aspirations of going to Manchester University so he can live out his dream and finally get the hell out of Luton. It’s there that he has a chance encounter with soon-to-be-good friend Roops (Aaron Phagura), the only other student of Pakistani descent at the school. Roops introduces him to the music of Springsteen, and once Javed pops in that first cassette of Born In The U.S.A., his life is forever changed. The Boss’ songs may be about life in the badlands of Asbury Park, New Jersey, but his themes are universal and the lyrics reach out and touch Javed at a time when he needs it the most. He immediately idolizes Springsteen, copying his clothes and hairstyle. This gives him newfound motivation that sparks a romance between him and a student activist named Eliza (Nell Williams), who he meets in the class taught by English teacher Ms. Clay (Hayley Atwell) – and seemingly one of the few adults who sees his potential writing aspirations that his smoldering household environment has prevented even him from seeing.
The power in Chadha’s film surely comes from Springsteen’s music. If you are not a fan, chances are probably good that this may not resonate with you. But at its core, it’s a coming of age film with a ton of heart and passion that balances both humor and emotion in a way that feels authentic and true all the way through. You can feel for Javed as he aches to follow his dreams and passions but is unable to do so because of what is expected of him from his family. These are universal themes and although we feel frustrated for him, Chadha never casts his parents as villains. Sure, they are traditionalists and maybe go a bit too far sometimes, but she makes it clear that they do love their son (and two daughters) and are struggling to keep old traditions alive while raising children in a different culture.
What’s most surprising about Blinded By The Light is the way it incorporates Springsteen’s music. Chadha boldly decides to use the music and have the characters treat it – at times – as if they’re in a Springsteen-themed musical, with these scenes playing out to varying effect, sometimes a bit cheesier than intended, but ultimately it ends up working in a charming way that wins you over. These sequences will be jarring for certain audience members who have no idea that the musical-esque elements are coming their way, but it’s a quirk framing device that shows the new-formed inspiration that the music has had on Javed and his friends.
The film rests upon the shoulders of newcomer Viveik Kalra, who has the dramatic chops and starry-eyed naive look to pull off this role in a winning fashion. He goes toe-to-toe with Ghir, among other cast members, who is excellent as his stubborn old-fashioned dad who ultimately wants what is best for his son. The two play extremely well off one another, and their relationship is the real heart and soul of the film, which develops in a way that will have you wiping away tears by the end. Phagura, Williams, Chapman, and Brydon are all more than likable as Kalra’s support system, and Meera Ganatra and Nikita Mehta shine as his mother and sister respectively. Although they have limited screentime, there’s also strong work from Atwell as his more than supportive teacher and David Hayman as his neighbor who has a surprising narrative arc.
Blinded By The Light may not reinvent the coming of age genre but has likable characters that are played to perfection, a script that is as charming as it is heartfelt, and a bold incorporation of The Boss’ music – although the musical numbers sometimes do more harm than good – that help it along. Even so, it’s a complete crowdpleaser that achieves its goal in a winning fashion that points to it being this year’s Sing Street – a critically well-reviewed film that doesn’t quite find the box office success it unquestionably deserves but goes on to find new life in the ensuing years when it’s discovered by unsuspecting viewers who too will be won over by it.