This year seems to be a big for jukebox musicals in the form of Rocketman, Yesterday and now, Blinded By The Light. Based on the life of British journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, Bend It Like Beckham director Gurinder Chadha takes the story of a British-Pakistani boy in the 1980s who becomes inspired by the music of Bruce Springsteen, and turns it into one of the most heartwarming films of the year in the process.
Set in Luton, England in 1987, Javed (Viveik Kalra) is a son of Pakistani immigrants who writes but can’t seem to find his place in the world. He is crushed by his father’s expectations of him and doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest of his peers. That is until he discovers the music of Bruce Springsteen and suddenly finds his own circumstances aligned with the songs of “The Boss”. There’s ‘Dancing in the Dark’, there’s ‘Born To Run’ and a host of other classics that become an obsession of Javed’s. He begins to position his life with Bruce’s, and soon he embodies a braver and confident personality, going so far as to date a non-Pakistani girl in his class, Eliza (Nell Williams). It’s like with the music of Springsteen, Javed puts on the Spiderman suit that makes him become the man he always wanted to be.
Blinded By The Light is a good film. Though at times the story comes across as too earnest and lacks the tiny bit of cynicism that makes you feel like you’re watching an “adult” movie, for the most part the film works exactly because you can feel the energy rushing through Javed when he hears the songs. It leads to the film’s highest points that see him pursuing his crush, fighting back against racists and standing up for himself. It’s sincere with a dash of cringe, but it’s the right kind of sweet that makes it perfect for a release at this time of year.
Chadha has a lot to live up to, and fortunately this is a strong return to form. It echoes the coming of age films that used to inspire generations of people to follow their dreams and change their lives. Chadha also does the right thing by the music of Springsteen, really exemplifying the lyrics and drawing out the themes that younger audiences aren’t familiar with, but also juxtaposing it perfectly with Javed’s life. It’s a strong connection that energises life into the story, particularly as it also plays out against the backdrop of 1980’s England with Thatcher in power and the National front marching in Luton. Viveik Kalra finds his breakout role in this film and really shines. His ability to charm the audience and act with sincerity carries the film entirely. All supporting actors are equally as capable, though the screenwriting verges on stereotype at times.
It feels flatter and less satisfying than the narrative arc of Bend It Like Beckham, and at times goes for the broad laughs, rather than digging into the nuances of both Springsteen’s music and the reality of being an immigrant in Thatcher’s England. It’s on the nose at times, or relies too much in Springsteen’s music to provide the emotion that a scene should have by itself. The music is big and positive, life changing almost, and you can see this conveyed on screen. If it only had a bit more bite and grit to make it feel truly real.
The soundtrack is excellent and story carries both the themes and power of Springsteen’s music. It’s an empowering film and it’s hard to leave the cinema without a smile.
It’s a bit too sweet at times and a bit overlong. But sure to convert even the biggest haters of The Boss.
Originally published on Back Row, 21 August, 2019.