Directed by Gurinder Chadha | Written by Chadha, Sarfraz Manzoor, and Paul Mayeda Berges, inspired by the music and lyrics of Bruce Springsteen | 117 min
Recent gems from across the pond, Pride and Sing Street , are the movies Blinded By The Light wants to be: heartwarming, nostalgia-fuelled coming-of-age pictures with a dash of social commentary told while dancing to the music of the 1980s. If Blinded By The Light isn’t as good as those are, it does have the music of Bruce Springsteen, and in that it has more in common with the recent Yesterday, where a young man finds he’s the only person who remembers the Beatles. In Blinded, our hero, Javed, may as well be the only one who remembers The Boss, given how little his family cares about his near-religious enthusiasm for New Jersey’s finest. What distinguishes this scrappy, sometimes clunky, comedy is both its unexpected dramatic heft and the sheer affection for the idea that music can change lives.
Javed (Viveik Kalra) is 16 in 1987 and lives in Luton, up the highway from London and a long way from anything a teenager might think of as cool. Javed’s father (Kulvinder Ghir) rules his life and the lives of Javed’s sisters (Nikita Mehta and Tara Divina) and mother (Meera Ganatra), controlling the family finances and generally espousing a keep-your-head-down attitude of accepting racial inequality living adjacent to neighbouring white English people.
Javed is a burgeoning poet—encouraged by a teacher, Miss Clay (Hayley Atwell)—and writes lyrics for his pal Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman) who’s in a band and knows how to pick up girls. But it’s another buddy of Javed’s, Roops (Aaron Phagura), who introduces him to the music of Bruce Springsteen, igniting his dreams of a better life. Javed wants to get out while he’s young, to get to that place he really wants to go, and walk in the sun. (Sorry, couldn’t help it.)
Chadha has directed a number of films, but the two I’ve seen, the indie hit Bend It Like Beckham and the delightful Austen-via-Bollywood musical Bride and Prejudice both felt more confident and well-rounded than Blinded by the Light. This new film is earnest and compassionate, sure, but also obvious and predictable in Javed’s coming-of-age challenges. His friendship with Matt could’ve easily been cut out, and his “gig” as songwriter is never really explored, his lyrics never shared with the audience. The film chooses to not show us most of Javed’s writing, which feels like a real mistake given we’re being told again and again that he has talent.
Instead, we get Springsteen, and that can’t be a bad thing—”Dancing In The Dark,” “The Promised Land,” and, yup, “Born To Run” feature prominently, lyrics appearing up on the screen as the songs blast through Javed’s walkman. His enthusiastic conversion to a Bruce acolyte is very sweet, and in a couple of instances the film strains to become what it really wants to be, a musical a la Mamma Mia. I don’t have a real understanding for why it isn’t—the idea of a largely Pakistani-British cast performing Springsteen songs while fighting suburban doldrums and racism feels like a win-win, and the film finds its most joyful moments when Javed, Roops, and Javed’s sweetheart, Eliza (Nell Williams), dance like spirits in the night and let it move right through them.
(Yes, sorry-not-sorry again.)
The film manages to find traction in the dramatic moments—it doesn’t trouble the authenticity of British kitchen-sink dramas or Mike Leigh’s working class stories, but it’s clearly inspired by them: Javed’s fear of the local neo-Nazis is well drawn—a march down a Luton high street with the supremacist yobs chanting “Send Them Back” can’t help but feel scarily relevant, all while “Jungleland” plays underneath—and Javed’s struggle with his father’s traditional values also helps give the picture an emotional backbone to bolster some of the more ordinary teen dramatics. A broad, uplifting thesis that music brings us closer to our actual, best selves, with culture no barrier to a great song, that’s the film’s saving grace.
It’ll help a lot if you’re a Springsteen fan going in, but even if you aren’t, Blinded by the Light may still capture the wide open country in your eyes, and romantic dreams in your head.
(OK, that’s the last of it. Really.)