Blinded by the Light (2019)
For Everyone Who Has Ever Wanted to Dream. You’re Not Alone.
Identity, heritage, tradition, individuality, self-expression, self-determination — there are a lot of heady themes at work in the crowd-pleasing Blinded by the Light. Bright and uplifting but frequently demonstrating impressive emotional depth, the latest film from director Gurinder Chadha, Bend It Like Beckham (2002), draws on the teenage experiences of Sarfraz Manzoor: Pakistani immigrant, writer, and — perhaps most importantly — massive Bruce Springsteen fan.
It’s the healing power of The Boss that allows the onscreen Manzoor, renamed Javed Khan and played by Viveik Kalra, to tackle the myriad of adolescent problems that beset him: reconciling his writing ambitions with his hardworking father’s plans for his life; trying to wrangle some semblance of a love life as a Muslim kid in a majority-Anglo working-class Luton school; and, more directly alarming, contending with the rise of racism and nationalism occasioned by the economic and social problems plaguing Britain circa 1987, which sees young kids urinating through the mail slots of immigrant families, skinheads roaming the streets looking for brown people to bash, and, in one of the film’s key sequences, a National Front march that coincides with a Pakistani wedding. It is hard out here for our hero.
Thank the Lord, then, for Bruce Springsteen, whose music comes all the way from Ashbury Park, New Jersey, to Luton, England, courtesy of fellow disaffected South Indian teen Roops (Aaron Phagura), in time to remind Javed that words have power, dreams have life, and the Struggle (capital S well and truly intended) is universal. Springsteen comes along just in time, too; Javed’s Anglo best mate, Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman) is a New Wave kid, and whatever else one might say about the excesses of ’80s pop, it didn’t have much to say about class and race struggle (by and large — don’t @ me). While the dominant cultural narratives would see Javed relegated to sidekick status, through the music of Springsteen and the support of, among others, teacher/ mentor Ms. Clay (Hayley Atwell) and love interest Eliza (Nell Williams), he determines to be the hero of his own story.
That perhaps sounds a bit pat, and there are times when Blinded by the Light is so open-hearted and earnest that it verges on the embarrassing, as when Javed and Roops sing and dance their way through a number of scenes to various Boss bangers; when the film decides it wants to be a jukebox musical now and again, it flies on the face of its otherwise affectionate but grounded tone.
It’s saved by its sense of acute specificity and its affection for almost its entire cast of characters. This is not a fairy-tale murkily-mid-80s fantasy milieu but working-class-AF Luton with all its attendant poverty and problems, and it feels it. Music may elevate the spirit, but a shaved head crashing into your nose can still ruin your whole day.
As for its cast, while the racist National Front present a constant background threat, the people we actually meet are never condemned to caricature (although the pretentious school radio DJ and newspaper publisher, who each embody obstacles between Javed and his desires, come awfully close). Javed’s old man, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir) could have been a cookie-cutter stern and controlling South Asian father; instead we get inside his skin after he’s laid off at work, see his struggles to provide for his family, his shame at having to go to a job agency, his fears that his children, who he’s raised in an effectively alien land, will lose touch with their culture.
Which makes Blinded by the Light a bit of a whiplash experience. One moment the film is playing broadly as Eliza, a progressive political activist brings Javed home to dinner with her Tory parents (she’s a bit like Rik in The Young Ones except not loathsome); the next a guilt-wracked Javed is foregrounded against an election poster for Thatcher, wondering if he could have prevented the racist violence that has just beset his family. It’s a ride.
A pretty good one, too. Blinded by the Light manages to address both the importance of community and connection along with the necessity of individuality and self-definition, marrying the feelgood sensibilities of your Full Montys and Billy Elliots with a mild but nonetheless unmistakable flavoring of British social realism. If Ken Loach were South Asian and liked New Jersey bar bands, he still probably wouldn’t make a movie like this, but that’s about as close an encapsulation as you’ll get for this one’s nigh-irresistible charms.
The soundtrack’s pretty good, too.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Travis Johnson